Wednesday, June 24


Before I even get into what I'm planning to write about today, I just want to insert a quick disclaimer: While it would certainly be nice to be right all the time, I know that I am often wrong, and I acknowledge that what I have to say is by no means the end-all best point-of-view; however, this is my opinion and I feel like this is an important message for Christian young people.

One of the highlights of many church kids' summers is what they like to refer to as "church camp". The church I go to puts on a pretty fantastic church camp over the course of several weeks throughout the summer. The main point of the week of camp is the preaching, according to the camp administrators. This statement brings to mind only one question: did those people ever actually go to church camp? Admittedly, some pretty dynamic preachers are featured during the weeks of church camp, but I still doubt that a survey of the campers' main reason for paying money to come to camp would indicate that the preaching is the biggest part of church camp for the teens.

When I think of church camp, I think of awkward games and staying up late and lots of unhealthy snacks and week-long relationships and having to share a bathroom with seven other girls. The two main features of church camp (and I think most teenagers would agree with me) are terrible camp relationships and having as much fun as possible.

After three years of summer camp (and looking forward to my fourth in a couple weeks), I have a decent amount of experience with all the positives and negatives church camp has to offer. However, one negative sticks out in my mind above almost all the others: invitations after services.

Just for the sake of clarity, I don't mean like "Hey, wanna go to Steak and Shake?" (does anybody actually go to Steak and Shake anyway?), I'm talking about when a preacher issues an invitation to his audience to come to the altar to pray (basically).

Here's how a lot of these services go:

Preacher opens message with an emotional anecdote or startling statistic.

Preacher reads Scripture for two minutes.

Preacher paces around the pulpit, yelling and sweating like it's summer in Florida.

Preacher yells some more.

Preacher closes with an intensely emotional story. (yelling optional)

Preacher issues an invitation.

Entire audience goes forward to make a decision.

If this sounds familiar to you, first off, you're probably a Baptist. (lulz) Either that, or you've been in a similar service, whether for camp or not.

Personally, I have a problem with the invitations preachers issue at youth camps. Teenagers are notorious bandwagon jumpers in any environment. But pack us in a building with over a thousand other teenagers, get the audience so emotionally charged that everyone is super uncomfortable, and use manipulative language when asking (demanding?) us to make a decision during the invitation at the end, and you have a recipe for mass spiritual disaster. 

I have many examples that I could mention, but I've picked two that I think best show why I think these invitations are so dangerous.

At my first year at camp, a preacher spoke passionately (or maybe just loudly) about why purity is so important for Christian young people (true). Upon finishing his message, he invited the campers to come forward and make a vow of purity to a camp leader (a little awkward, but not bad). But then he continued to say that he expected 100% participation. Some kids might resist the invitation even after this was said, but who is going to stay behind after everyone else goes forward at an invitation and look like a hardhearted rebel resisting the conviction of the Holy Spirit? What about all the kids who have already done that? What about kids who would rather talk to their parents or home pastor about it first? What about kids who just aren't ready quite yet? What about kids who want to think about it and make sure they fully understand what they're doing before they make a promise to Almighty God about something? What about kids who just aren't convicted to go forward? What about kids who are too young to even know what the preacher is talking about?

It's hard enough to be the only one not doing something when everyone else is doing something that's obviously wrong, but what about when everyone else is doing something that looks so right?

Well, like good children, every last camper went to a counselor and took their hand and said what the preacher had told us to: "I promise." Even as I was participating in it, it felt weird to me. While I don't regret making a decision to remain pure, I can guarantee you that my decision wasn't made then, and those words I said to a counselor I didn't even know certainly didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't convicted by the Holy Spirit to go forward in that service, I was convicted by a preacher and by peer pressure.

The other example is actually from a camp service I visited just this past week. The message was good right up until the invitation. The preacher worded his invitation in such a way that any conscientious Christian teenager would feel guilty not going forward, no matter their reason for staying in their seat. The moment he opened up the altar, probably 80% of the campers got out of their seats. But what I saw next is what bothers me the most.

I watched a boy sit in his seat, his body language indicating that he was not planning to get up anytime soon. Then the girl next to him stood up and started to move towards the altar, followed by the boy on his other side. He looked from one to the other, tensed up, and then started to move to stand up when he saw that both of his companions were going forward. However, the aisles were so clogged that Boy #2 was having difficulty getting out, so he started to sit back down. As soon as Boy #1 thought he wasn't going to be the lone not-serious Christian, he relaxed and settled back in to his seat. The next moment the aisles were clear and Boy #2 got up to go again, and Boy #1 instantly jumped up to follow his friend down to the altar. 

Boy #1 clearly would not have gone forward if his friends hadn't been going, especially if he hadn't seen that hundreds of other kids had already gone.

Peer pressure isn't all about crazy partying. Every time a preacher at a church camp issues an invitation and a mass exodus to the altar begins, we have to deal with a lot of peer pressure. Most teenagers can't discern if the pressure they feel is the conviction of the Holy Spirit or if it's pressure created by their peers or the environment or the preacher. 

Preachers and youth leaders need to be careful not to confuse their teens. I'm sure it's easy to get caught up in the thrill of seeing hundreds of teenagers come forward, but the focus should be more on helping teenagers to really understand and make sincere decisions and less on getting everyone in the building to respond. Luke 15 says that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over ONE sinner who comes to repentance than over ninety-nine just people who don't need to repent. Teens need to know their own hearts and use discernment (easier said than done, I know). But most importantly, teens should never be made to feel guilty for not going forward at an invitation. Whether they want to make a decision is between them and God, and that exclusivity and privacy should be carefully maintained.

I think it's very important for teenagers heading off to church camp to know that it is okay to not go forward if you're not feeling led to. I know that it's hard to just stand there when everyone else is going forward, but if you are honestly not convicted to go forward, why would you? Going forward (or not) for an invitation makes a statement. Unfortunately, the statement that it makes is more along the lines of "I'm a good person, look at me" and not "By God's grace I want to make serious changes in my life". If you're not serious about making changes in your life, going forward at an invitation sends the wrong message to people around you, and even though it's a positive message, that's dishonest. In general we as teens suffer from a tendency to not think about what we're doing. So just think before you go to do anything, and know that it's okay to decide not to go.

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. 
Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 
(Romans 14:22)

Friday, June 5

Trouble in Big People World

The news has certainly been hopping lately with various stories applauding certain events and people while viciously attacking others. It has definitely felt to me like increasing numbers of these issues have been attacking Christians and Christianity in general, and sometimes even basic morality itself.

I don't want to jump on any bandwagons here, because I'm sure everyone's news feeds have been overwhelmed with all the latest articles. I'm also by no means the best person to be talking about any of this. There can't be much more to say on any of these recent issues, and I doubt I'll say anything new. In lieu of all that, it is my goal that the thoughts I present in this post would be not only immediately relevant, but also applicable under other circumstances. (Plus, writing this all down will, I hope, help me work it out in my own mind.)

Jesus told his disciples many times that they should expect tribulation in this life. This is explicitly stated throughout the New Testament, and it is evident in the Old Testament that followers of God have been suffering persecution in various forms almost since the beginning of time. It comes as no surprise to me that attacks on our faith – specifically from the media – have become more frequent recently; however, it is still disturbing and saddening.

Even though it's hard to imagine how this could possibly transpire from the circumstances at hand, I know God will be glorified.

He always has a plan and works things for ultimate good. Even though God's schedule may not match ours, it's important to keep the bigger picture in mind. In the vast scheme of things, even these problems that seem to be a huge deal to us could be infinitesimal and insignificant from God's perspective; and yet He chooses to work through them.

God has been using recent happenings in Big People World to help me learn and grow. Over the last month or so, I've read dozens of articles on the various issues that have been hot topics in the media. Many of them were intentionally written to elicit an emotional response, and they certainly didn't disappoint. Unfortunately, the desired response of anger to the point of action was not what I experienced, but rather an overwhelming sadness for the state of...well, mankind, really.

I moped and sulked a little, stewing and festering and not accomplishing much of anything. Then I went to the Bible, and surprise! God helped me break through my mental fog and establish some clarity – even as He's helping me do right now. (Funny how reading the Bible always seems to help, and yet I always seem to forget to do that.)

These are a few of the thoughts that came to my mind today as I sifted through articles on the same hot topics that I'm sure you all were sifting through articles on as well.

First, it seems to me that non-Christians don't really know what Christianity is all about. 

One of the biggest complaints that the general population has about Christians is that we're all a bunch of hypocrites. And yes, many of us are, but not all. The foundation of Christians' interaction with nonbelievers has to be the realization that we are all sinners. In that most basic of ways, we're all the same, and that means that nobody is better than anybody else. And even if we think we're somehow superior because we have already received Christ as our Savior, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

If somebody gave you a present, would you go around afterward bragging about how great you are because you received the present? Common sense says of course not; you would go around bragging about how great your friend is for giving you the present. And that's exactly how we as Christians should be about our salvation. To receive a present is nothing, but giving it is remarkable.

And that sort of leads in to the next thing I think people misunderstand about Christianity. In some cases there seems to be a downward spiral from hypocrisy – Christians get to feeling like they're big stuff because they have been enlightened to salvation (oh yeah, and it was by the grace of God, but you know), so they think that because they have reached higher understanding, they now have the right to criticize what everybody else does in an extremely nitpicky and sometimes petty way. And believe it or not, being criticized by Christians all the time is not going to make people want to accept Christianity.

In fact, the only thing it seems to accomplish is making people think that good Christianity is about doing every little thing right and severely criticizing when anything is done wrong and just picking and nagging and punishing and sending to hell and negativity and restrictions everywhere. And because Christians represent God to unbelievers, that's what people start to think God is like.

But God is not all about lecturing people about what they're doing wrong. God is all about saving people no matter what because He loves them.

Let's compare sin to skyscrapers for a second. When humans think about sin, we think about it like this:

My sin is that one skyscraper, but that big one over there is my friend's, and that little one over there is my pastor's, and that one is yours and it's pretty big, etc...

We always want to compare our sin and play who's the worst sinner. But God sees sin more like this:

Are all the differing heights still there? Yes. But from this perspective, does it matter how big one is compared to the other? No. From this view, a skyscraper is a skyscraper, and sin is sin. There is no big or little, significant or meaningless. Cheating on a quiz is equally as serious as theft or murder, simply because all sin leads to death, no matter the size that we assign it.

So since we're all sinners, even if we think someone else's sin is "worse" than our own, as far as God is concerned, we don't have any right to tell anybody that they're in the wrong.

Because we tend to focus so much on other people's sin, another thing that seems to be believed about Christianity is that everything we do revolves around our past. This couldn't be more wrong, since salvation and Christianity is all about new life and renewal. To start off on this subject, I want to share some verses from Romans 6 that sum it up pretty fantastically.

"We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin... For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."

People who focus on their sinful past rather than moving on to live their life under God's grace are bringing unnecessary difficulty on themselves. God doesn't dwell on the past, nor should we. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we make really, really big mistakes, but God is eager to forgive us from all unrighteousness - and that applies to anybody who will receive Him.

Ultimately, we as Christians need to stay focused on Christ and His love and the freedom we have in Him. Even though we may not always agree with what a person does, we still know that we should love them as God loves them. We can acknowledge their wrongness in our own hearts without shunning them and publicly denouncing them. Is your getting a chance to prove yourself right really worth making another person think badly of all Christians because of how you treat them?

Before his conversion, the Apostle Paul was the leader of many violent attacks on Christians. And yet, these are his words in 1 Corinthians 10: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved."

Any Christian who lived during Paul's time would certainly have thought him to be the last person God would use, but instead God enabled him to become one of the greatest missionaries in the history of Christianity. Christians are not perfect, and holding us to such an impossible standard is a setup for disappointment. But like Paul, God can use us in spite of our past sins.

So what have I learned? Well, first I would say I've gained a new perspective on how important it is for me to be aware of what kind of testimony I'm presenting. I'm not an in-your-face kind of person, so I don't go around broadcasting to everyone that I'm a Christian, but most people I come in contact with regularly are aware of my beliefs, and because of that it's important for me to keep in mind how I represent Christ to them. Am I showing them the unconditional, accepting love of Christ or am I making them feel judged and criticized? My interaction with them may affect how they view Christianity in general, and that realization somewhat ups the pressure to conduct myself in a manner that reflects Christ.

The second thing I've been thinking about is how I should treat people who have different standards than I do, maybe even significantly so. I often struggle with maintaining friendships because even though I love my friends, I'm not very good at being loyal to them before I'm loyal to what I think is right, but I'm also really bad at telling people when I think they're in the wrong. So rather than address the issue, I just avoid my friend in general. I know that especially for me as a young adult it's important to be on my guard regarding what influences I allow into my life, but what if my friend needs good influence from me? I don't have all the answers on this one by any means, but I do know that Jesus didn't shy away from associating with some folks of ill repute. Just because I don't agree with something someone is doing, I should still show love to them.

Ultimately the most important thing I've learned is that no matter how high or low people seem to be on the righteousness spectrum (that's not a real thing, in case you were wondering), we all need Christ just the same. While it seems reasonable to hold Christians to a higher moral standard (because being holy like Christ should be our goal), to expect us never to fail is terribly unrealistic. Christianity is about being forgiven and accepted despite your failings, not about focusing on your failings and letting them hinder your growth (therein lies the freedom). Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people. Things happen to people, but the ultimate test of character is how people respond to the things that happen to them. Whether I'm being attacked or dealing with someone else who's being attacked or even just having a regular interaction with someone, I have to choose how I will respond to whatever I'm facing.

The right response is always found in Christ.