Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What is a Successful Youth Ministry, Part 3

 In the last post I identified a radical dependency on God’s sovereignty and his promises as a key foundation for successful youth ministry.  Apart from the sovereign work of God’ grace replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, our youth ministry will ultimately fail.  Given this, it is vitally important that we submit our plan for youth ministry to God’s plan for youth ministry.  Since only God brings the growth (1 Cor 3), our goal in youth ministry must be to do the planting and watering work in the way that he has appointed.  Put another way, we must look to the Bible to provide more than simply the content of youth ministry, but also to provide the direction for how we are to do youth ministry.  True, the Bible does not give specific instructions regarding the types of programs that churches should have for youth ministry, but it would be a serious mistake to think that the Bible does not address how youth ministry should be done.  It does not provide all of the particulars, but it does give us core foundations to build upon.     
What are these core foundations?  I believe the model of youth ministry that the Bible lays out for us to follow involves two key components: (1) Faithful nurture in the home by parents, and (2) Multi-generational discipleship in the church.  As I will demonstrate in upcoming posts, these are the two pillars which undergird a biblically based ministry to youth. Put another way, biblically based youth ministry is first Family-Based and second Church-based.  In my opinion, it is the removal of one or both of these pillars that has created the current crisis in contemporary youth ministry.  The problem with much of contemporary youth ministry is not that it is not well -intentioned, but that it has undermined or ignored these God-given foundations.  Parents either turn their child’s spiritual well-being over to the “youth-pastor” (thus ignoring the first pillar), or a church allows a separate youth culture to exist alongside the rest of the congregation (thus ignoring the second).  

To sum up: there is a lot of room to operate in youth ministry, but we must operate on the foundations that God has provided.  If we jump off of God's foundations in an attempt to be more "relevant," it can only result in long term harm for our youth. In the next post I will take a closer look at the first foundation of youth ministry:  Faithful nurture in the home. 

Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children, Part 2 (Book Review)

In the first post on this subject, I reviewed Beeke’s explanation of the need our covenant children have of being evangelized.  In this final post, I first overview his instructions on the content that should be taught to covenant children, and second his description of the means we should use to bring the content to covenant children. 

Teaching the Content of the Gospel:

      In a nutshell, Beeke exhorts parents to teach their children the whole counsel of God.  Parents should not be content that their children know a few bible stories, but we should impress upon their hearts the biblical teaching about:  
  1.      God
  2.      Seriousness of Sin
  3.      Hell
  4.      Necessity of the New Birth
  5.      The Law of God
  6.      The atonement
  7.      Faith in Christ
  8.      Teach them about Jesus
Using the Means:

Armed with the content of the gospel, Beeke’s final section is an encouragement to parents to make the most of the means that God has provided for the evangelism of their children.  While he lists several, two of the most important are prayer and catechizing.  

Since it is God alone that can bring the new birth to our children, prayer is an essential privilege and responsibility of parents for their children.  Parents should make it a point to pray for their children as well as pray with them on a consistent basis.   Chares Spurgeon once wrote: “How can a man be a Christian, and not love his offspring?  How can a man be a believer in Jesus Christ, and yet have a cold and hard heart in the things of the kingdom towards his children?...It is our business to train up our children in the fear of the Lord; and though we cannot give them grace, it is ours to pray to the God who can give it; and in answer to our many supplications he will not turn us away, but will be pleased to regard our sighs.”  

Unfortunately, Catechism is a lost practice in many Christian households today and badly needs to be taken up.  Catechism, teaching bible knowledge and doctrine to children through a question and answer format, was a backbone in the reformed church for many centuries.  Puritans especially believed that the ministry of the Word on Sunday should be reinforced by personalized ministry through catechism.  Parents were expected to set aside time each week, in addition to family worship, to catechize their children. Behind this was the desire of the parents and churches that their children do more than “ask Jesus into their heart” but actually understand who Jesus was and what he had done for them.  Properly understood, evangelizing our children is not merely bring our children to make a profession of the Gospel, but teaching them what it means to live in light of the Gospel.  Parents should be looking for more than a quick and easy conversion of their children, but rather be committed to building up lifelong believers whose hearts, minds, will, and affections are won for the service of Christ

Practically, Beeke gives several suggestions for catechizing children today:
  1. Do it at least weekly with your children, 30 - 45 minutes. 
  2. Use a good catechism like the Heidelburg or WSC 
  3. Use illustrations from Scripture and daily life to help the children understand the answers they are learning
  4. Persevere even when you do not see fruit. 

Christian parents should remember that leading a child to Christ is a journey, sometimes a long journey, in which they are dependent upon the Holy Spirit.  We cannot bring about the new birth in our children, but we can faithfully take hold of the means that he has given to us to use.  Our hope is that the sovereign God will delight to convince and convert our children from generation to generation, which he has promised he will do. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I am not who you think I am: A sinner's plea

Recently I have been watching a DVD series by Paul Tripp called Dangerous Calling. While it is geared for pastors, I thought it would be good for me to watch as I prepare myself for the pastorate (hopefully).  I thought this would be good for me, but I was not prepared for the havoc that it would wreak in my life. As I prepared myself to watch this I thought to myself, “This would be great to put on as a pastors conference. I could get a bunch of men from San Diego and Orange County to pool our money and bring Paul Tripp out here. There are so many people who need to hear this.” All the while, as I planned these grandiose schemes, God had a different plan in mind.

Dear friends, I am not who you think I am. Often times we (myself included) put our pastors, leaders and church officers up on a pedestal thinking they are “above the fray”. On many occasions I have caught myself thinking something like this: “This is not a sin to which my pastor can relate; he does not struggle with greed or lust or pride. He is my pastor after all.” Well I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not who you think I am.

While I am a church officer who is called and set apart for ministry and I ought to be “above reproach” in my life and conduct, I have not made it yet. I fear that some people might look at me as I walk into Church with a smile on my face, happy to be where I can meet with God, and think I have it all together. Or they may ask me for counseling or advice on a specific problem they have been encountering, whether it is sin or an interpersonal struggle, and as they listen to me talk them through how the gospel transforms their lives, they may think that I don’t struggle with sin like they do. This is a problem because I am not who they think I am.

Who am I then? I am a sinner who is saved by grace. A sinner who must daily put off the sins of the flesh, whether it be greed, or laziness, gluttony, pride or lust. I am a man who is daily learning to live in the dual reality that sin’s power has been broken in me, but sin’s presence is still here. I am a man who is daily being conformed into the image of Christ, who daily must take hold of the truths of the gospel and go to battle with the "lusts of the flesh, desires of the eyes and pride in possession" (I John 2:16). A man who must remind myself constantly that I live under a new banner that reads, “Not Condemned”.

As I watch these DVD’s the introductory scene quotes Hebrews 3:12-13 “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Now this is not a DVD for regular church members, but for pastors! So why do they use these verses? Because pastors are sinners just like the rest of us. Because pastors need to be exhorted every day; pastors need the gospel too. As Paul Tripp has said before, no one is a “grace graduate” and that is the last thing we need, a pastor who is a “grace graduate”, who no longer sees the need for grace in his life.

So in light of these truths, who am I? Who do you think I am? At our last men’s retreat Milton Vincent said these poignant words, “you already know the worst thing about me, I nailed Christ to the cross.” Because you know this about me, now I can live in freedom. I don’t have to fear for what can man do to me, who will judge God’s elect?

Who am I? I am one of the men who nailed Christ to the cross, who has been forgiven, who desperately needs to be exhorted daily, who must fight against his sin. I am a man who would say with the apostle Paul “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (I Cor. 11:1) Follow after me, but only in the ways I display Christ to you and the watching world. Do not imitate me, in my foolishness, or my sinfulness, my arrogance or my pride. Imitate me only in the ways I imitate Christ. Pray for me in the areas where I fall into sin, that I would have a life that matched my calling, for the glory of Christ. Exhort me as long as it is called today, that together we might grow into the image of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,
Joel Fitzpatrick

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

We are at war

Dear Friends,

The church is at war. This is no new news to you, but we still need to be reminded from time to time that this world does not want Christ to triumph. Of course this war is not one that is fought with guns and bombs (except proverbial guns of truth and bombs of God’s word), it is fought with the less tangible items like prayer, the means of grace and the truth.

Satan, although he has been defanged, still prowls about like a roaring lion seeking for someone to devour. As believers who are in Christ we do not need to fear Satan but we must be wary of his ways. I have often said that Satan does not come and knock on our door and kindly introduce himself saying, “Hi there, I am Satan and I would love to tell you some lies about God. If possible, could I dissuade you from think that God is good, or possibly can I convince you that your works save you?” No, Satan does not wave a red flag with warning bells ringing the call of heresy. He loves to deceive us, just as he did our first parents.

This week the church has lost countless people to the fight. Many have walked away being convinced that God is not true. We have felt that loss here in the PCA as a pastor has stepped down. Not over some gross sin, praise God, but because his views changed on the idea level. Over this reality my heart is greatly burdened, and my prayers go out to the man and the church he left behind. We all have stories of friends or family that have walked away from Christ, people who have listened to false teaching and followed after it abandoning the teachings of the true prophet.

This is similar to what Peter wrote about in the book we will be studying over the summer, 2 Peter. In this small letter Peter is telling the believers whom he is writing to, “Beware, Remember the truths you have been taught!” Peter is preparing these believers for when he will be gone, and he is admonishing them to be on their guard there are false teachers who would seek to deceive you. Now let me be clear, I am not saying that this former pastor or the person who walked away are false teachers. Let me restate that, they are not the false teachers that Peter is warning us about. But, I would venture to say that they listened to false teaching.

Peter lays out for us two specific tests to discern whether or not a person is a false teacher whom we ought to avoid.  First, Peter tells the people that his teaching is trustworthy because he saw these things with his own eyes. If anyone contradicts what Peter is saying happened he is not to be trusted. Second, Peter tells us that there is a qualitative difference between what a true prophet teaches and what a false prophet teaches. Namely, what true prophets of God teach comes true and therefore is trustworthy. Peter warns that those who teach these false doctrines will be judged swiftly and harshly.  

Here is where we fight the war. First, we must be students of Gods word. Through this we will be equipped to identify and avoid the false teachings that would so easily ensnare us. Second, we must be prayer warriors. We must pray for our pastors, elders and deacons that their hearts would be guarded. We must pray for Christ’s church that it might be kept pure.

Dear church of Christ, we are at war, a war that is for our souls. Would you fight? Would you fight on your brother’s behalf? Would you not rest in the fight? One thing we do know is that Christ has and will triumph. 

Pay Careful Attention to Yourselves and To All the Flock

This week a friend of mine left the church where he serves as pastor and resigned his membership in the PCA altogether.  He cited significant changes in his views that are quite contrary to the core of the Gospel. We were Westminster Seminary classmates and continued to spend time together at the yearly General Assembly of the PCA.  Sadly the same day I heard about this, I also learned that another friend from seminary has renounced his faith.  (Needless to say it was a difficult week). 

I’m not writing to speak about my friend who left the PCA, or his views.  Frankly there has been a lot of venom in the blogosphere aimed at him with this announcement.  Questions and discussion may be warranted since he was fairly well known in the PCA,  but harsh and cruel speech should have no place in the discussion.  He's a friend of mine and deserves to be treated with dignity.  

But I do feel compelled toward some self-examination this week.  This might seem odd at first, but when a friend and fellow pastor walks away from what I believe is biblical orthodoxy, or when someone with whom I sat in seminary classes abandons their profession of faith altogether, I can’t help but remember that I am just a man.  A weak sinner in need of grace.  

As I am thinking through this week’s sermon in our series on Ephesians, Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 have been powerful and helpful for me this week.  Here are a few phrases from Paul’s speech that struck me, particularly in light of hearing sad and discouraging news:

“I do not count my life of any value, nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”(v. 24)

 Paul has just told them that prison and suffering is awaiting him in his ministry, but he has a proper view of himself.  Physical well-being is not important to him. All that matters is finishing the calling God had given to him.  My prayer this week has been this:  “Lord help me to finish the course you’ve laid out for me.”  None of us is beyond sin, error or rebellion (Don’t get me wrong; I do not believe a true Christian can lose their salvation.  That’s the subject of another article).  The moment I begin to “count my life of any value” or as “precious to myself,” I will be tempted to waver from the course God has laid out for me.

“Pay careful attention to yourselves…”(v. 28)

Our own souls need regular faithful tending in the Gospel.   I need to be reminded of who I am in Christ regularly.  If do not take heed to myself, how can I minister to others?  This applies not just to elders, but to everyone.  When Paul says “pay careful attention to yourself,” he is encouraging us to not neglect caring for our own spiritual health.  A steady diet of the Word, prayer, sacraments, fellowship with God’s people, singing God’s praise, etc.  are vital to keep my focus on what God has done for me in Christ.

“And to all the flock…”(v. 28) 

There is a connection Paul makes between caring for myself and caring for others as an elder. If I am drying up spiritually and not nurturing the health of my own soul through then I won’t have much to give others.   Two thoughts come to mind: First, pray for your elders in this regard, that we would be strengthened regularly in the Gospel of grace.  But also, recognize that this generally applies to all believers, not just elders.  As John Piper once said, “You cannot commend what you do not cherish.”  As the Gospel becomes more precious to us, it will spill over into our relationships and we will be able to give that Gospel to others. 

“…In which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.” (v. 28)

This verse stuns me, partly because of God’s sovereign calling upon elders to their work.  But what captures me is the last phrase: "…the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.”  What encouragement this brings to weak sinners!  To know that we are HIS!  Bought by His blood, His church, His bride.  Because honestly, the call to care for our own souls and the call to care for the souls of others is a daunting task for which none of us are sufficient!   The command is clear: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock…” but the strength and security is found here:  Jesus purchased this flock.  He purchased me, with all my weakness and failure.  I am His, and He is mine, and this now frees me from the bonds of self-effort and gives me instead the power of a loving Savior who will enable me to walk the life of faith and serve in His kingdom.  As your pastor, it is reassuring to know that Jesus is the Lord of the church, and while He calls me to labor among you with all my might, the results are up to God, not me. 

“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (v.32)

Paul knew He would probably never see the elders at Ephesus again in his lifetime.  This brought great sadness to them all, and yet Paul knew that what they really needed was not himself, but God and His grace.  Paul seems to be saying this:  “I cannot be with you any longer, but what you really need is God and His Word of grace.  That’s your greatest need.”  God himself was the one who would continue the work in their hearts.  He is the one who will bring them home to their inheritance one day.  How?  By the Word of His grace.  When Paul couldn’t be there, God would be, giving them the Word of grace that is able to build them up.  There is a great certainty provided for us here.  God’s grace poured out is the hope for our spiritual strengthening.   Paul “commended” them to God and to that certain hope.  The word means to give over or to entrust someone to another’s care.  Paul had an unshakeable confidence in God’s ability to care for His church. 

Now don’t get the wrong idea: I don’t have any plans to go anywhere!  And yet what we all need is no different.  We need God and His word of grace to fill us and sanctify us.    As the church that Jesus bought with His own blood we are also given a certain present path (that His grace can build us up) and a certain future – an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.  

Lord willing, I will stay the course, feast on the Gospel, give it away to you as much as I am able, finish the race and minister with you until I have no strength left in me or God calls me home.  And yet, even now while I am still with you, I commend you to the Word of His grace.  May the Lord who bought our souls continue to build us up in spiritual strength.

In need of grace,

Pastor David