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.

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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.

True-Love-Waits

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.

Girl, Wash Your Theology

In America alone self-help is at least an eleven billion dollar industry.  You read that right billions with a b.  On top of that Americans spend over 200 billion dollars on mental health, these numbers are more than every other country in the world combined.  Self-help of course can be needed and mental health problems are often very real but I suspect the extreme diGirl Washsparity between the United Stated and the world is a symptom of a greater issue.  Americans care a whole lot about ourselves, more so than any people group that has ever lived.  The strange thing though is the American obsession with self comes in many forms; some Americans give their whole life to the support of more other Americans give their lives to be more themselves.  The strange truth of America is we can be simultaneously one of the most unhealthy countries in the world while also leading the world in gym membership and diet spending.  The only reason we are not a walking contradiction is seemingly every one of these paths is an inward focused one.  We live for our selves, talk a whole lot about ourselves, and frankly our greatest national idol is ourselves.  A product of this strange American naval gazing is the popular new book Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis.  Despite having some clear strengths, Hollis’ new bestseller is nothing if it’s not self focused.

Girl, Wash Your Face has received some HARSH criticism and EMPHATIC praise already.  Several reputable Christian ministries have issued sharp rebukes of Hollis’ words while audiences are absolutely raving about the new book on sites like Amazon and Good Reads.  The buzz around this book is not surprising as the book is the rare Christian book to top the New York Times bestseller list and months after it came out it is still incredibly hard to find (it took me a week and who lot of luck to get the print edition) and as of this article being written the various formats rank #1, #2, and #4 on Amazon’s Christian bestsellers list. In a post literature world somehow Girl, Wash Your Face is the biggest Christian breakout hit in many many years.

There is some debate as to whether or not we can call Girl, Wash Your Face a religious book or not.  I want to navigate this in the beginning because it’s important.  GWYF is under a Christian publishing company, is marketed strongly to the “Christian market”, and Hollis quite frequently talked about her faith even if she has an awareness non-Christians will read her book.  We must call this an attempt at a Christian book and that’s why Christian leaders must take it seriously.  I disagreed profoundly with the worldview of the family film Trolls but as it makes no claim of being Christian I’m merely mildly annoyed with it.  If Trolls was sold at Family Christian Bookstores I would oppose it and if GWYF were any ordinary secular self-help book I would still have disagreements with it but I would probably ignore it.

Before addressing the considerable problems of Rachel Hollis’ worldview I want to acknowledge both strengths in Girl, Wash Your Face and discount some unfair criticism.  A friend of mine stopped reading GWYF half way in and she really missed out.  The third quarter of GWYF really surprised me.  A few consecutive chapters have little objectable claims in them and Hollis’ chapters on weight loss and alcohol consumption are really helpful.  Hollis urges dietary and alcohol moderation with both thoughtfulness and needed boldness.  Hollis wants women and probably men to have healthier lifestyles not so they can look amazing but so they can have wellness and energy.  In urging this Hollis is practical and stays away from dietary old wives tales so popular in her genre.  Some of the criticism of GWYF is misguided as well.  Some quote an early chapter to suggest Hollis believes you can trust the obese.  This claim looks really concerning especially when paired with a particular sentence from GWYF.  Sadly those critiques have substantially ignored the context and Hollis could not be accurately labeled a “fat shamer.”  The other critique that I think goes to far is the claim that GWTF advocates Religious Pluralism or the view that all ways to God are equally valid.  Hollis probably does believe the similar heresy of Universalism that says all will come to Christ through Jesus whether they worship Him now or not.   This said Hollis knows her intended audience in GWYF and seems to only dance close with universalism rather than clearly teach it.

While not every criticism of GWYF sticks, the problems in this book are significant and nearly omnipresent throughout the book.  This book somehow even more than most self-helps works is extraordinarily self-focused at times even verging on narcissism.  Hollis does indeed write that women need to understand themselves as the hero of their story, which is problematic.  The bigger problem isn’t this famous quote but that she repeats the premise over and over and over again and she makes it crystal clear in both the dangerous introduction and the final chapter that this putting yourself first is the fundamental premise of this book.  Some claim that when Hollis says “you are meant to be the hero of your own story” or when she constantly repeats “you control your own life” she is just rejecting passivity but before the first quote she clearly alludes to the classic humanist poem Invictus. Hollis believes every woman needs to build her life around herself, she needs to be her own hero as her final chapter says over and over again.  This is so clearly at odds with scripture that identifies Jesus as the hero of our story (John 3:17), God as our refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1-3), and our purpose being to glorify God (Is 43:7).  To be clear, Hollis does eventually in the absolute final chapter acknowledge she needs God on her side to fulfill her great story but even in this God is presented as a tool to help Rachel accomplish her goals not the sovereign Lord of the universe.  In this Hollis actually is reminiscent of the Revivalist Charles Finney who stressed moral formation and right living with God merely as the one who helps us pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  Hollis actually refers to the old adage about God only helping those who help themselves without realizing this is fundamentally at odds with the Jesus who came not for the healthy but the sick.  Rachel Hollis sees herself as her own God with “the creator” at best being the wind beneath her wings.  All of this self-power focus is bad but what makes it worse is Hollis gives anything but the indication that this self care is for God’s glory, she’s far worse than Finney.  Hollis gives specific examples of the dreams she has and is controlling her life to achieve.  In the past she aspired to meet Matt Damon and to purchase a $1000 purse (both of which she achieves).  The purse example is especially troubling as she portrays her multiple year obsession with the status symbol as a really good thing because it urged her to work harder and do great things.  This is text book envy (which is against the 10 commandments for goodness sake).  On top of that Peter commands women to be modest by not having gaudy garments in 1 Peter.  If that purse is modest I don’t know what isn’t.  This selfish envy that looks for treasures in this world didn’t stop in the past.  Now Rachel is inspired by her dream of having a high end Hawaiian beach house where she will be serenaded by her favorite celebrities.  Matthew 6:19-20 shows us Rachel is looking for treasure in the wrong world (vain treasure at that) and if her treasures are on this earth so will her heart be.

Hollis’ self first worldview is able to be achieved because she doesn’t see humanity as fundamentally broken or in need of grace.  Her view of self (her Gospel) is, “I studied the gospel and finally grasped the divine knowledge that I am loved and worthy and enough as I am.”  Rachel doesn’t believe she is enough in Jesus but that she is worthy to God of great things in her born fallen state.  This explains why Hollis over and over states the main tenant of Christianity is loving people rather than the divine truth of salvation in Jesus.  Hollis’s “Christianity” is about being a good person not realizing none of us are good enough but Jesus gives grace (Romans 3:23, 6:23).

Even that goodness of Hollis’ religion is only goodness to self.  An example of this is her words about parenting.  Hollis is clearly a mom who works hard in every sense.  She obviously works outside of the home but she makes clear if a woman prefer to stay at home with her babies that’s great for them.  I have no problem with moms working outside the home but Hollis’ reasons for mothers choosing to work or stay at home are actually both deeply selfish and reflective of this me first mentality.  Hollis is very clear she works outside of the home not to help provide the family’s basic needs but to pursue her dreams.  Hollis actually thinks putting her dreams before being with the kids more than the babysitter as a great parenting move.  She says, “Did I really want them to see me spending my life pursuing a dream while also anxiously acting as though I didn’t deserve that right?  Absolutely not.”  In Hollis’ worldview the pursuit of our own dreams is the most important thing and also the most important lesson for her kids.  The Proverbs 31 woman on the other hand works hard even in ways she doesn’t want out of a desire to love her family more than herself.

“You should be the very first of your priorities!”  That line is from near the beginning of Girl, Wash Your Face and it should trouble Christians.  Rachel Hollis clearly worships what she sees in the mirror more than anything else and because she targets Christians with this message she is therefore a false teaching heretic to say it bluntly.  I think Hollis’ (and several others to be fair) message of putting self first is probably the most dangerous false Gospel today and the one that we least notice in our pews.  Hollis’ worldview is peppered throughout Girl, Wash Your Face and I honestly have to question how someone who truly understands or believes the Gospel of salvation through Jesus can possibly not be bothered by it.  Maybe if you are a church member and find the words in this book speak more to you than Biblical preaching it’s because Hollis’ false religion is also your false religion.  If this is the case read Romans and John far before the self help books.

The theological danger of Girl, Wash Your Face is by far the biggest problem but beyond that there is a likewise dangerous secondary premise; you can accomplish all your dreams if you just work hard enough.  This is obviously unbiblical but further this is naïve to the point of being cancerous for society at large.  Psychological studies have shown a causative link between self-help movements and anxiety, Alisa Childers is right to call this all exhausting.  Rachel Hollis doubles down on this to disastrous effect.   Hollis bluntly says “if you’re unhappy, that’s on you.”  How exhausting?  We need to make ourselves better and if we are ever unsatisfied we just need to put in more hard work?

I especially can’t imagine how frustrated someone in the majority world would be reading this book.  In the Congo where most people earn less in a year than Rachel Hollis makes in a few minutes would dreaming bring you any closer to that beach home in Hawaii?  Should a paralyzed boy in Vietnam ignore the authority figure who tells him he’ll never be the Ravens star Receiver?  Realistically most Americans probably are hardly more likely to achieve their dreams than the previous examples but in most countries Hollis’ words only help as kindling.  If everyone believes they can achieve whatever magnanimous dreams they have the vast majority realistically will miss by alot and could go broke in the process.  Studies have consistently shown Self Help books have a marginal impact at best but ones like this can definitely leave you depressed when you probably do fail.  The one thing we consistently find the self help movement successfully able to do is give those in middle Management enough aspiration to be their boss that they don’t question their boss or the system they are in.  Rachel Hollis’ ugliest quality is arrogance but oddly I think her arrogance is the kind of arrogance our society regrettable honors.  Rachel acts like because she was supposedly able to work harder and dream harder than others she has pulled herself up by her own bootstrap without having any kind of societal advantages.  Rachel clearly has innate talents that few have (I don’t), married a successful husband, and genetics convenient for her time.  She has undoubtedly gone through deep sadness but she is arrogant to assume she rescued herself from them and so can you.

Similar self important creative work comes in the lyrics of Katy Perry music.  Katy Perry sings how she will make people hear her roar and how we are all fireworks meant to shoot high in the sky.  This is all foolish, selfish, and arrogant but nobody claims Perry is a strong Christian; at least not anymore.  Katy Perry had a similar sentimental Christian upbringing as Hollis but Perry stopped claiming to be an Evangelical at some point.  Many say Katy Perry’s lyrics emphasizing a self idolatry are emblematic of her rebellion against her Christian upbringing.  Maybe Katy Perry didn’t really rebel, maybe Katy Perry merely followed a religion of self worship often disguised as Christianity to its logical conclusion.  Maybe there is no outside force pushing our kids to idolize self-expression.  Maybe that voice of self worship is coming from within American Christianity and spreading as our only effective evangelism.  If so Girl, Wash Your Face is nothing but a gospel tract for the worst false gospel to infiltrate American Christianity.  Read Girl, Wash Your Face or follow Rachel Hollis on the gram if you’d like but do not let yourself be deluded into thinking she’s remotely consistent with the Christian worldview.

Fear Based Parenting

Jenny was protected from every possible danger by her parents.  Jenny never broke a bone or bruised her knee because she was not permitted to do activities that might lead to such things.  Growing up Jenny was so protected from drugs or alcohol she wasn’t sure she even knew what beer or marijuana even looked like.  Most notably Jenny was protected spiritually.  Jenny spent virtually every hour growing up in either her home or her church, her mom and dad signed her up for every church activity so long as it wasn’t outreach focused.  Jenny was homeschooled at every level and her parents even considered a home school college of sorts.  Jenny only knew professing Christians and she was routinely presented with negative caricatures of non-Christians and their worldview.  Jenny was raised to think lost people are stupid, dangerous, and constantly out to get her but this facade wouldn’t last.  Within months of Jenny enrolling in a community college where she could stay at home after graduating high school, Jenny had changed.  Jenny fell for a rebel that was nice to her and before long she was sleeping with him, taking hard drugs with him, and getting money through illegal means so she could get a place with this guy.  Jenny is a real person but not actually named Jenny and by God’s grace she now loves Jesus and her kids that she doesn’t shelter.  Jenny’s parents are wonderful Christian people and they cared for their daughter through her rebellion but now they know you can’t always protect your kids.

Too many Christian parents for very good reasons let fear define their parenting more than anything else.  Home schooling can be very good but many Christians homeschool because they are afraid their kids will become sinners if exposed to other sinners.  Church activities can be fantastic  but sometimes the calendar becomes far too full of them to keep our kids away from negative influences.  Christians can disagree about holidays or magical novels but Christian parents can act like these are more powerful than Gospel celebrations or the book breathed out by God.  Fear based parenting is a plight on the church today because though it means well, it’s built upon terrible theology, it’s flatly unbiblical, and it hinders the Gospel.

It’s surprisingly common for outreach-based ministries within a church to morph into just another form of protecting our own.  A few years ago I was conversing with a mother with children involved in a ministry that had undergone such a transformation and much to my confusion this mother was grateful for the shift.  This mother had come to love this ministry because she felt it was a great way to keep her kids from becoming corrupted and evil through the influence of bad, non-Christian kids.  The bad news for this mother is she’s too late.  Her kids already were corrupted by sin.  Her kids could not be protected from being corrupted because they had corruption and wickedness in them down to their hearts and they like all of us were marked by this corruption from conception in the womb.  Psalm 51:5, alongside many other Bible verses, show us every human is a rebel capable of great evil from conception.  Lost people don’t have to teach your kids to do evil things.  That evil is very much already there.  This also means we can’t keep our kids Christian by hiding them from other worldviews because they come pre-packaged as lost pagans and can only become Christians when God gives them the gift of new birth.  According to 1 John 2:19 if our kids walk away from Christianity after being exposed to other worldviews they did not lose their Christianity but gave up a fake Christianity.  If anything, this is a good thing for their souls.  We don’t need to be afraid our truly saved kids will stop being Christians or not grow as Christians because real faith sticks and grows no matter what environment it is in.

The other deeply unbiblical element to fear based parenting is, of course, the deeply unbiblical concept of living in fear.  More than 60 times, the Bible commands God’s people not to fear.  Few commands even come close to this number.  Fear is always a temptation to God’s people but it’s deeply problematic because it is an idolatry of sorts.  Fear thinks we can control our fates if only we do this or that thing, it acts as if there is no one out there to keep me or my child safe but me.  Trusting God is fundamentally seeing Him as infinitely more powerful than the negative possibilities that go through our mind at night.  Trusting God isn’t being foolish, but it does realize God can work mightily even if we have been foolish.  Trusting God realizes our parenting decisions are important but nowhere close to as impactful as His sovereignty.

Finally, fear based parenting hinders our Gospel impact.  Once our kids know Jesus, the job of every parent is first and foremost to equip their kids and send them out to do the Lord’s work in our lost world.  Our kids and youth can be some of the most effective evangelists to their lost classmates or neighbors, but if we fail to let them meet lost people their powerful Gospel message will be kept hidden.  If we raise them to fear or hate the lost they will rarely if ever share the Gospel even as adults.  Fear based parenting doesn’t only hurt our families, it fails to love the lost who are no more in need of God’s grace than us or our kids.

This month the most controversial holiday in Christian circles comes, Halloween.  At Faith Family Church we will not be having any evening activities that night.  You as parents might chose to take your child to another church’s Halloween alternative, stay at home with the lights out, enjoy the holiday with limits on scary things, or just go crazy with it all like most people.  We are taking the night off to allow you all to make your own decisions in this matter but I encourage you no matter what meditate on the power of our great God rather than getting wrapped up in your parenting fears and perhaps rely on this power to tell your neighbor about God’s grace that night.  We don’t know what will happen to our kids when they leave the nest and sheltering them while they are with us doesn’t change that.  Instead of living in terror of what will happen when our kids meet the evil world, let’s trust in God who is both powerful to use them in this evil world and fix the evil within their own hearts.Fear

Being Aliens

I’ve always enjoyed science fiction films that act as social commentary in one way or another.  One of the best recent movies to expertly use science fiction to make a greater point was District 9.  District 9 is a decade old alien film in which certain humans are the villains and the aliens are primarily misunderstood victims.  In District 9 the aliens who are called Prawns come to earth posing no real threat and possessing gifts of technology they could share with humanity.  Unfortunately for these Prawns, mankind sees them as strange foreigners and quickly most come to hate these aliens that have a different way of life then mankind.  Amidst this rejection many of the Prawns keep hope through the knowledge that though they are in a foreign land they would one day go to their home world.  This hope impacted their whole lives while on this earth; it caused them to invest their time preparing to return home, this hope enables them to endure hard treatment, it even allows them to show great compassion to someone who hated them the most.

Today it is hard to avoid the reality that Christians are aliens in this world.  We aren’t the evil invader kind of aliens, but we are certainly the District 9 refugee kind of aliens.  Though recent generations of American Christians have been able to operate under the wrong assumptions that they belong in this world and that our culture is basically Christian, Generation Z Christians will not have that luxury.  Our youth need to be prepared for the reality that if they are in Christ they are aliens to this fallen world and maybe if we try to prepare them they will in turn teach us to better live like aliens.

This year Faith Family Church’s youth ministry will embrace a new name, namely Area 51.  We love the emphasis of The Blob youth group and we hope to continue to be a place where youth are swallowed up into the blob.  This said, Area 51 will be a name that helps us embrace the reality that our teens are aliens.  We want the reality of our alien nature to not only be something our youth come to understand but something they celebrate.  We hope this will show our young people we will and should stand out in this world, they should expect persecution, and that “Cultural Christianity” is an oxymoron.  We will soon sing songs about our journey to our heavenly home, we will have events that reflect our weirdness, but the most exciting way we will emphasize this will be our Fall Area 51 study.  We will study the Bibles letter to alien Christians; 1 Peter.  1 Peter is the Apostle Peter’s letter to Christians scattered and far from their heavenly home that they await.  The Christians Peter wrote to were being rejected for their faith and were learning how who their new heavenly citizenship changes their lifestyles and choices.  Peter even calls these Christians aliens multiple times.  Of course, Peter wasn’t thinking of space aliens, he compared Christians to what we know as sojourners or just immigrants.  No matter the specific imagery, Peter wrote to Christians that found out the hard way they don’t belong here. The audience of 1 Peter sounds a whole lot like the upcoming Generation Z to me.  I think this Fall study that we will call “Being Aliens” will truly help teens see who they are.

Be warned, if our youth truly embrace life as they aliens society will regard them as we might become uncomfortable ourselves.  For all the things Generation Z is criticized for, they are far less interested than other generations in waging Partisan warfare.  In our churches even Christian Gen Zers are far less interested in marriage laws than they are interested in helping the needy.  There is good in this and if they do embrace life as aliens they will give up any Christian mentality of taking a country back for God and instead realize aliens lose the culture war but wins something much better.  Alien Christians will both realize this world is foreign territory for God’s family and that even movements that share some values with Christians are of this world.  Instead young Alien Christians will become passionate about preparing for their eternal home and showing their friends in this lost world our great alien hope in Christ.

district_9_smallIf we are Christians, we are aliens.  We can pretend we fit into this world or lament that this foreign turf is starting to act like foreign turf but nonetheless we are still aliens and we are supposed to be.  Our young people are already having to make a choice to either conform to the world or embrace life as an alien.  Let’s all young and old embrace our weird green skin and life in exile.  Let’s embrace being aliens so the world can know our other worldly hope.