Does Anybody Wait for Marriage Anymore?

Every so often I run across an article discussing the problem of young Christians engaging in premarital sex. One recent example comes from Relevant Magazine, a cutting-edge magazine geared toward young adults.

Typically the information presented runs along the following lines: nearly all young Christians are having sex before marriage, despite intense efforts by the evangelical church to convince them to wait. (The Relevant article says that 80% of young Christians are having sex outside of marriage). In nearly every case, the writer characterizes the popular True Love Waits program as a colossal failure, because only about 12% of the students who sign purity commitments during the program actually keep their promises.

Despite the compelling statistics, though, I think articles like this are alarmist at best and misleading at worst. Why do I say that?

First, they often portray sexual sin as something new to Christianity, as if everything was a great deal better in the “good old days.” But that perspective is inaccurate. Go read any of Paul’s New Testament letters, and you’ll see repeated exhortations against sexual immorality, usually because members of the church were in sin. In some cases he provides specific examples of Christians who were failing in this area (for example, see 1 Corinthians 5). The Church has struggled with the issue of chastity for thousands of years. In certain eras and in certain cultures it has done a better job of forcing people to conform to external standards of purity (usually by shaming or punishing those who disobeyed), but I wouldn’t say that sexual purity has ever been the norm. Even if people managed to control their outer behavior, there were usually struggles boiling beneath the surface.

Second (and I really think this is key), articles like this make no attempt to distinguish those who identify themselves as Christians from those who actually possess a Christian worldview. In Ronald Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, he laments how the behavior of evangelicals is indistinguishable from that of the culture around us. He cites some of the same troubling statistics about sexual sin, violence, and racism in the Church. However, toward the end of the book he makes a critical distinction that I think is worth noticing (pp. 127-128).

He mentions that George Barna did a study to determine the effect of a biblical worldview on a person’s behavior. Here’s how Barna defines a biblical worldview:

For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.

Guess what? Only 9% of “born-again Christians” actually have such a biblical worldview! And among that smaller group, the statistics relating to sexual activity are much more encouraging. While 1 out of 8 born-again Christians had sex with somebody other than their spouse in the month preceding the survey, only 1 out of 100 of those with a biblical worldview had done so!

So on a practical note, what does this mean? It means that sexuality cannot be discussed as a separate issue apart from the holistic calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Parents and youth leaders, take note: if you tell your kids to “just wait” without explaining to them why they should wait or integrating the discussion of sexuality with robust training in the spiritual life, your efforts will most likely fail.

On the other hand, the students who wait until marriage are concerned first with knowing Jesus and following Him. Their approach to sexuality is not disconnected from their spirituality, but is an integral part of it.

And here’s the really good news: there are students who are waiting. I know many of them in my own ministry. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, they are constantly tempted and no, they don’t always make perfect choices. But they are waiting and they do see the value of sexual purity as a part of their spiritual life.

So let’s not be too alarmist or fearful, but instead let’s be diligent to make disciples, recognizing that the way we use our bodies is a critical aspect of walking with God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Why or why not?

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Should You Go Into Ministry?

In the past few weeks a number of students have asked me how I made the decision to pursue ministry as my full-time job. I recognize, of course, that every Christian is called to to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and to encourage fellow believers as they follow Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). So in one sense, every Christian is called to full-time ministry.

Some, however, will pursue vocational ministry as pastors, missionaries, seminary professors, or para-church staff members. If you are considering that path, here are a few things to consider as you process that decision:

Will your gifts and abilities be most effective in the context of ministry? Throughout my life, I’ve often felt like I was “custom-designed” to be a pastor. It’s not that I’m the best preacher or leader or exegete on the planet — far from it, actually. Instead, I seemed to have a combination of moderate abilities that most naturally found their expression in the local church context. I did well in school (for the most part), but it was always at church where God seemed to make my work the most effective. My conversations with trusted friends and family often confirmed that.

If you are considering vocational ministry, ask the opinions of some honest people who have observed your ministry as a volunteer. Are you gifted as a leader? As a teacher? As a shepherd or pastor?

Is your greatest passion in life to equip the body of Christ to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13)? Every Christian ought to be  committed to knowing and serving Jesus as the primary goal of his or her life. Some, though, are committed to helping other people do that job well. That means you want to develop leaders, train people to know the Bible, and encourage people to pursue holiness.

In general, it means that you want to spend all of your working time on that task. The thought of spending your days sharing the Gospel, mentoring young Christians, studying the Bible, and leading teams of volunteers excites you in a way that nothing else does. If you feel that way, vocational ministry might be the direction to pursue.

Are you comfortable with the unique lifestyle of a vocational minister? I frequently tell people that ministry is more of a lifestyle than a job, although it’s a job as well. The main difference between my job and a job in the marketplace is that my identity and my career are often indistinguishable. When I go to the grocery store, I’m still “that college pastor from Grace.” On the other hand, when my brother (who is a programmer) goes to the store, people don’t usually say — “Are you that guy who writes such awesome code?”

My spiritual life, personal life, and family life are integrally connected to my vocation. I can’t be a pastor on Sunday morning and the angry man who shouts at the Starbucks barista on Monday. If that makes you uneasy, vocational ministry is probably not the best field for you to pursue.

Finally, do you feel a personal sense of calling? I don’t want to minimize this. It’s really a combination of the above considerations. As you pray, seek counsel, volunteer, and think about your future, do you have a strong sense that God is calling you into ministry? Do you feel that  pursuing a different path would be “alright,” but not necessarily God’s best direction for your life? If so, then you are probably a candidate to consider vocational ministry.

Like most of my posts, this is not a comprehensive list, and I’d encourage you to pray and seek a lot of advice if you’re considering ministry.

Do you have other comments or questions on this topic? I’d love to hear your input!

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When You Think of Heaven…

…what comes to mind?

This week we’ll be continuing our sermon series about heaven and hell, and talking a bit more about the perfection of heaven. What comes to your mind when you think about heaven?

It’s interesting to observe how our culture discusses heaven — for some, it’s a place where we fly around like angels on clouds. For others, it’s a place where we find true romance. For still others, oooooh, heaven is a place on earth. (Oooh baby, do you know what that’s worth?)

For some reason, I keep remembering the lyrics to an old Counting Crows song:

“When I think of heaven (deliver me in a black-winged bird), I think of flying down into a sea of pens and feathers and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird.”

Spooky. What’s with the black-winged bird? Why are we going into its belly? Sounds yucky.

And later in the same song:

“When I think of heaven (deliver me in a black-winged bird), I think of dying, lay me down in a field of flame and heather, render up my body into the burning heart of God in a belly of a black-winged bird.”

Even spookier. Now I’m going into the belly of a black-winged bird, but this time I’m on fire. I’m not sure what Adam Duritz was reading or doing when he wrote that, but he wasn’t reading the Bible. That’s for sure.

Biblically, heaven is a place of perfection. God will restore everything to the way it ought to be, and those who know Jesus will be with Him forever. No more curse, no more sin, no more death.

Absolute perfection. Perfect bodies. Perfect relationships. Perfect surroundings. Perfect everything. And if there are blackbirds, they aren’t swallowing us into their bellies.

What about you? When you think of heaven, what comes to mind? What excites you the most about it?

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Identifying Campus Cults

College campuses are prime recruiting territory for cults and heretical sects. Christian students are excited about their faith and eager to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, some groups take advantage of that fact. They prey upon students’ idealism and zeal and suck them into unbiblical belief systems.

I was reminded of this sad reality last night when a group of young men tried to take over our college ministry’s evening service, shouting that they alone had the true Gospel and that the rest of the churches in America are condemned. My understanding is that these men have been making the rounds on campus this week, so I felt compelled to write a post warning my readers and also providing some information to help you spot aberrant groups like this.

Galatians 2:4-5 warns us against false brothers, who sneak around to spy out the liberty and grace we have in Jesus Christ. Paul says he didn’t give in to people like that for even a minute, and neither should we.

So what are some of the defining features of cults? It’s very difficult to come up with a standard list — every group differs a bit. However, below are some things that many of them have in common. Not all of them will have all of these characteristics, but they will all have at least one. I hope this will help you as you interact with different groups on campus:

First, they are extremely exclusive in their understanding of salvation. Many of these groups believe that they are among the only “true Christians,” and everybody else is preaching a false gospel. It’s not simply that they have theological differences with other groups. They believe that adherence to their particular system or code is the only way to eternal life. And they usually believe that almost nobody else is doing it right.

For this reason, they often appeal to students who are seeking a really zealous and whole-hearted way to follow Christ. Everybody wants to feel special and important, and these groups try to meet that need by telling students that they are among God’s few and chosen elite. Colossians 2:16-19 warns about those who go around trying to disqualify others by preaching an elitist message of asceticism and legalism.

Second, their doctrine departs from orthodox Christianity. Most of the cults I’ve run across at A&M are Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. In other words, they hold that works are in some way actually meritorious — only those who practice particular actions will end up in heaven (for more on this see my previous post about Brother Jed). Of course, this contradicts the New Testament in a number of places, most notably Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:21-26.

Often they have heretical beliefs regarding the Trinity, as well. They might hold that Jesus was simply an exalted man, or that each member of the Trinity is like a different “mode” or “representation” of God. The orthodox view of the Trinity is that we serve One God who exists in three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) simultaneously. Each Person is distinct, but each Person is fully God.

Third, they are isolationist in their methodology. Rather than encouraging Christians to engage in community with the local church, they separate people from it. Sometimes they encourage students to move into “communes” of sorts, where they can be monitored at all times. Some groups ask their members to hand over control of their personal finances to the group leadership. They discourage or even restrict contact with family or friends who disagree with the cult’s teaching. They do not practice the unity encouraged by Paul in Ephesians 4:1-6.

Fourth, they aggressively proselytize, but in ways that communicate open disrespect for anybody who disagrees with them. There is usually no productive dialogue with cult leadership. It’s “my way or the highway.” Those who question their methods or teaching are shouted down or ignored. In an individual conversation, they might seem meek or mild-mannered, but in public settings they are confrontational and angry. They violate the command of 1 Peter 3:15, which calls us to give a reason for our hope with gentleness and respect.

This is really just a start, but these four characteristics will hopefully be helpful as you respond to various groups and preachers on campus. For some great information about cults and world religions, check out www.probe.org.

What other questions or comments do you have about cults?

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Pat Robertson, Divorce, and Alzheimer’s

Pat Robertson is in the news again, and not for a good reason.

On his show this week, he stated that divorce is acceptable if one’s spouse has Alzheimer’s disease. When pressed about whether the vow “till death do us part” ought to be honored, he responded by saying that Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death” and that he wouldn’t fault anybody for getting a divorce and just moving on.

He then suggested that we should get an ethicist to sort it out, because it’s such a hard situation.

It turns out a pretty significant ethicist has already spoken to this issue.

Christian theologians differ on the acceptable grounds for divorce. Some feel that it is never acceptable. Others make an exception in the case of adultery. Others make exceptions for physical abuse, abandonment, and adultery.

But I’m aware of none who make exceptions in the case of your spouse being sick. Please don’t misunderstand me: I have no idea how painful it is to watch your loved one experience the confusion and deterioration caused by Alzheimer’s disease. It wouldn’t surprise me if even the godliest men and women felt tempted to flee from that situation. I would hope that as Christians, our response to those in that situation would be deep compassion and service.

But a Christian pastor should never approve of people breaking the vows they’ve made to their spouse before God.

What troubles me most are the cruel implications of Robertson’s advice. A man or woman with Alzheimer’s is not dead — he or she needs support, love, and encouragement more than ever. And it’s at precisely that critical moment that Robertson condones abandoning the person. That advice is inconsistent with the love of Jesus Christ.

Leaving the situation might be the natural response. But Christians are called to the supernatural response: to love even when it’s hard, even when it’s countercultural, even when the other person is not capable of loving in return.

For a wonderful illustration of this, listen to the resignation speech of Robertson McQuilkin, the former president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary. McQuilkin resigned his post in 1990 to care for his wife Muriel, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

Nobody is perfect, and I sincerely hope that Pat Robertson’s statements were simply ill-considered and poorly worded. I hope he’ll reconsider them and issue a retraction.

More than that, though,I hope and pray that God will provide the next generation of Christians with the strength of character to steadfastly reflect Christ’s love. Even when it’s really tough.

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Is God Unfair?

This week I’m speaking in our college service about the fairness and justice of God. We’ve been talking about heaven and hell this semester, and last week we introduced the topic of what happens when we die. The bottom line is that the Bible tells us that we have one of two destinations — there is no middle ground and there are no second chances. Whether the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is to be taken absolutely literally or not, it seems clear that Jesus believed that our destination after death is permanent and determined by our response to God in this life.

The idea of eternal judgment naturally raises the question of God’s justice and fairness. What about people who have never heard the Gospel? What about babies who die in infancy? What about those who are mentally incapable of understanding the Gospel? For every rule, there are possible exceptions, so we’ll talk about those a bit this week.

I would like your input as I prepare! When you think about God and the concept of eternal judgment, what questions do you have?

Do you struggle in some way with His fairness? Do you wonder about the justice of eternal punishment? Is there a situation or a question related to this issue that you would like addressed? If so, please let me know in the comments.

If you have particularly interesting and challenging questions, I can also deal with them next week on the blog. Especially if I don’t get to them all on Sunday. Thanks!

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Finding Time for Reflection in a Noisy World

A while back, I wrote about the danger of taking your theology from podcasts and popular preachers rather than from the Bible. At least one commenter stated that part of the problem is our cultural tendency to do things quickly — it’s faster and easier to listen to a podcast than to read the Bible and think about it.

I think another part of the problem is that we live in an extremely noisy world. It’s not just auditory noise, but visual and mental noise, as well. Time for prayer, study, meditation, and personal reflection is often crowded out by the constant mental stimulation — iPhones, televisions, computers, radios, and other devices. These devices are not evil, but they can make it difficult to find the moments of quiet that are necessary to grow personally and in our walk with God.

I face these challenges as much as anybody — sometimes I get overwhelmed trying to respond to email, engage in social media, keep up with friends, play with my kids, talk to my wife, do my job, spend time with the Lord, etc., etc. I don’t always manage my time as well as I would like, but I’ve been thinking lately about how to find intentional quiet time. Here are some ideas (you might use one of these or all of them, depending upon the demands and situations of your life):

Put it on your schedule. Try to maintain a consistent time each day for prayer and time with God. If your schedule varies from day to day, come up with a weekly schedule. Literally put it on your calendar as if quiet time were an appointment like any other. When your smartphone reminds you of the appointment, you’re much more likely to take it seriously.

Find a good location. Your favorite coffee shop might not be the best place for true quiet time, especially if all your friends are there. Look for a spot where you can truly be alone, away from distractions and noise.

Don’t begin your day with electronic media. I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this one. As soon as I wake up, I’m tempted to check my email, text messages, and voicemail. But most of those things can wait — once I’ve had time alone with God, I find I’m in a much better frame of mind to tackle the correspondence.

Consider a “media-free” day. Shannon and I have recently tried to set apart one day a week as a day without electronics. To be honest, we haven’t always been successful at sticking with it. And the kids don’t like missing The Backyardigans (although I don’t always mind missing it). However, when we’re diligent to observe our media-free days, we enjoy reconnecting with one another the kids. And we generally feel less stressed and frantic.

Use internet blocking software. Think about installing a program like Freedom, that intentionally blocks you from the internet for up to eight hours (you just tell it how long to keep you offline). This removes the temptation to check in with Facebook or Twitter every five minutes when the quiet becomes too overwhelming.

These are just a few thoughts. What other ideas do you have for finding intentional time to be quiet and spend time with God?

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Books Every College Student Should Read

Below are a few books I highly recommend. I’ve limited this list to those topics that are particularly useful for college students and young adults. Many of these books, though, are helpful to any Christian regardless of your age or station in life.

The Lost Art of Disciple Making by Leroy Eims — This book focuses on the ministry strategy of Jesus and how we can implement it in our churches and lives today. Eims discusses the concept of spiritual multiplication, a concept that’s often “lost” in today’s bigger-is-better culture of church. Start with a few men or women, train them to know Jesus and share the Gospel, and empower them to train a few others who train a few others who train a few others.

The Powerful Percent by Patricia Bergen — Sadly, this book is out of print, so you’ll have to track down a used copy on Amazon or AddAll. College students are only about 1% of the world’s population, but many (if not most) of the major movements of God in Christian history have been initiated by students.

The Fuel and the Flame by Steve Shadrach — This is a great discussion of how to “ignite your college campus for Christ.” It contains some great practical ideas for how to minister to college students. It’s particularly helpful for those in college ministry, but I think students can learn a great deal from it as well.

Survey of Bible Doctrine by Charles Ryrie — This isn’t necessarily a gripping page-turner, but it’s a good solid introduction to systematic theology and its categories. It’s also short enough to read quickly and understand.

Thy Kingdom Come by Dwight Pentecost — Pentecost is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, where I received my Master’s degree. This book is a great overview of the flow of biblical history, using key covenants (agreements between God and His people) as signposts. If you’ve always struggled to fit the Bible together as one coherent story, this book will help.

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson — There are a number of great Christian biographies, but this is my favorite. Don’t be intimidated by its length or small print; once you begin this book you won’t be able to put it down. Judson was one of the very first American missionaries. He left for Burma at the age of 25, and spent his life sharing the Gospel there. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards — This is a fabulous little book about the importance of respecting and submitting to authority. Edwards uses Saul, David, and Absalom as models of the right and wrong ways to interact with authority in our lives, whether it is just or unjust authority. You can probably finish this book in 3-4 hours.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster — Two great books about the importance of the spiritual disciplines in the life of a believer. Willard’s book provides a theological discussion of the disciplines, while Foster’s book provides a very practical overview of them.

Honest to God? and Just Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels — Hybels is a very practical and easy-to-read author. Honest to God is about living a life of authenticity before God and others. Just Walk Across the Room is a challenging but down-to-earth approach to personal evangelism.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. If you have other recommendations, feel free to share them in the comments here. I’m always looking for new resources to read and to share!

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I’m Not Looking Forward to Sitting on Clouds

Or playing the harp forever. Or floating around disembodied. Or being bored for eternity and wishing I had a good book to read.

I don’t like most of those things (although sometimes harp music is very nice).

It’s probably good that none of those ideas about eternal life comes from the Bible. They mostly come from Far Side comics, George Burns movies, and Precious Moments figurines.

Our biblical hope is a real city (Hebrews 11:13-16) with real houses (John 14:1-4) and real people with real bodies (1 Cor 15:35-49; Jn 20:24-21:14). It’s a place with food and water (Revelation 22:1-2). A place where we will serve God and rule for Him, forever engaged in meaningful and significant work (Revelation 22:3-5). It’s a very real place.

It’s earth, just a whole lot better. The last two chapters of the Bible actually describe heaven descending to earth (Revelation 21-22)!  Imagine what earth would be like if it were absolutely perfect, if you had a perfect relationship with Jesus, if you never struggled with sin or pain or death or sadness (Rev 21:4). That’s a more accurate picture of eternity.

So next time you see a silly picture of bored people floating on clouds, playing harps, with halos taped to their heads, just chuckle and remember: We’re not looking forward to that! We’re expecting something much better.

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