You Have More Influence Than You Think

I’ve been a college pastor for eight years now, so I’ve seen several generations of students come and go. One of the most intriguing aspects of college ministry is watching the process of discipleship happen in a compressed time frame. While an adult might leave a legacy at his church over the course of several decades, a student only has four or five years, at most, to make a mark.

I’ve learned, though, that most of us have more influence on others than we think we do. Even though they’re only around for a few years, many students impact the feeling and direction of our ministry for years to come. Students who lead with integrity and faithfulness often leave behind an army of like-minded student leaders. On the other hand, students who are immature, lazy, or unkind can create a toxic environment that takes a long time to overcome.

Most of us don’t think we have very much influence. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the real influencers in our culture are celebrities, business moguls, and politicians. Those people certainly have an influence, but to be honest it’s more of a wide-spectrum influence than a deep one. Think about the people who have really changed your life, and chances are they aren’t famous. They’re ordinary people: your parents, close friends, teachers, pastors, boyfriends/girlfriends, and roommates.

When Paul told Timothy to teach the truth of Christ to faithful men, who would teach it to faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2), he understood that real cultural change happens one life at a time, as one person influences another, who influences another, and so on. That’s the process of discipleship.

Although we tend to think of discipleship in strictly Christian terms, it actually works the opposite direction as well. If I use my influence to hurt others or to insult them or to feed my own ego, I’m going to produce others who act in the same ways. On the other hand, if I use my influence to draw others toward Christ and to share with them His kindness and love, I’m going to leave an entirely different sort of legacy.

So here’s a challenge for you this morning: Think about the people you influence. Make a list of your friends, family, classmates, roommates, professors, and anybody else who could be impacted by your words and actions. Then ask yourself, “What sort of legacy am I leaving?” It might be that you need to make some adjustments. Whether you think about it often or not, you are making a difference. The question is simply, “What sort of difference are you making?”

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Most Embarrassing College Moment?

A college student at CU-Boulder accidentally spilled his cup of yogurt all over the President of the United States this week. You’ve probably never had anything quite that embarrassing happen to you during college. But I’m curious to hear your embarrassing moments if you have them — just keep it clean, folks!

Is there an embarrassing college memory (an appropriate one!) that you’re willing share here? 

Listening to Your Loneliness

When I feel lonely, oh that’s only a sign,
Some room is empty, 
That room is there by design,
When I feel hollow, 
That’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow,
That’s what the lonely is for.

(David Wilcox)

We tend to think of loneliness as something we need to escape. Many of us have ideas about what would truly cure us of loneliness once and for all. College students and single adults often think that marriage will cure loneliness. Married people often think that a better spouse will cure loneliness. From time to time we all believe that popularity or fame would cure our loneliness. In the words of Adam Duritz, “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.”

Except, of course, you can. To be honest, some of my loneliest moments have been in the presence of crowds, people who know my name but don’t really know me. Maybe you can relate to that. I think loneliness is often most acute when we finally achieve what we believe would be the cure for our loneliness — a spouse, a date, popularity — yet we realize we’re not cured after all.

What if we’re thinking about loneliness incorrectly? Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to avoid loneliness, but should instead carefully consider what it means. Perhaps loneliness isn’t located “out there” somewhere but is really located “in here,” inside our hearts and minds and spirits. Loneliness just might be God’s way of reminding us that the ultimate source of acceptance and comfort isn’t found in anything this world can offer.

Don’t get me wrong — we’re designed to be in community with others, and to some degree we even need it. We aren’t made to walk through life totally alone. On the other hand, we aren’t made to be completely satisfied with the sort of imperfect relationships that this present world provides. Even in the most intimate relationships, people still hide from one another and hurt one another and fear one another. Until Jesus returns and makes us new and perfect and complete, we just won’t be able to avoid the pain of loneliness.

But when Jesus returns, loneliness will disappear. We’ll have perfect relationships, free of sin and doubt and fear of abandonment. Free of the need to hide from Him and from one another.

So right now, our loneliness serves as a sign to remind us that all is not well, but one day it will be. Instead of trying to escape it, let’s allow it to draw us closer to the One who can remove it permanently. Let’s also use the loneliness to remember that others are lonely too. Just like us, they need to hear the life-giving message that it won’t last forever.

How do you handle loneliness in your own life?

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Contentment and Freedom

I used to enjoy watching those TV commercials for Mac computers, the ones in which a smooth and articulate actor (“Mac”) talked with a dowdy and constantly confused “PC.” The message was clear enough: If you buy an Apple computer, you’ll be one of the “Mac people.” I always envisioned the Mac people sitting in their stainless steel kitchens, drinking expensive Lattes, and talking to their stock brokers on their iPhones. PC people, on the other hand, can barely find their socks, wear shirts with underarm stains, and drink Folgers.

That’s exactly the perception the Mac marketers wanted us to have, by the way. Advertising works best when it taps into our inherent discontent with who we are and what we possess. Apple wasn’t just selling us a tool, they were selling us an identity. If we’re not careful, we can truly begin to believe that our “life consists of the abundance of our possessions.” If only we had a different house, better clothes, a nicer car, or a bigger retirement account, then we could be free.

Of course, the perception that more money and stuff will bring us freedom is an outright lie. Most of us would consider a millionaire to be rich, right? But when millionaires are surveyed, they don’t think they’re rich — they think rich people have at least $7.5 million! I’ve talked with people living in $500,000 homes who think their house is too small or too old or too cheap. If only they had another half a million, they could buy their dream home. Right.

Contentment has nothing to do with the amount of money we make, and everything to do with our value system. Paul wrote us that he managed to find contentment in “whatever circumstances” (Phil 4:11). He could be content when he was in need or when he had an abundance. How? By trusting in Christ, who strengthened him and provided for all of his needs. By doing as Jesus said, and seeking first the kingdom of heaven and then trusting that God would provide the rest (Matthew 6:31-34).

True freedom is not found by having just a little bit more. It’s found by trusting the Lord with what I already possess. If you’re a college student with $20 in your pocket, you can be content. If you’re a millionaire with enough saved to live for 20 years, you can be content. Contentment is an attitude of dependence upon the Lord. Contentment says, “God has provided for me sufficiently, and He will provide all that I need to do His will.” Paul tells us in another letter that we can be content if we simply have food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). That’s a far cry from the discontentment of our culture.

Contentment frees us to serve the Lord without worrying about money, and it frees us to give generously to the cause of His kingdom. If I live within my means, I can give to my church and to missionaries without fearing it will bankrupt me. I can orient my life around God’s purposes rather than around trying to make an extra buck or two.

It’s okay if you’re not one of the Mac people. (It’s also okay if you are, by the way). What really matters, though, is where your values lie. And your bank statement is a fairly good indicator of that.

Is contentment difficult for you? Why or why not?

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Do You Watch Christian Films?

In the past few months, several explicitly Christian films have been released. October Baby was released in March, Kirk Cameron’s new documentary Monumental came out at the end of that month, and Blue Like Jazz came out last weekend.

It’s no secret that many Christian films are criticized for being cheesy or poorly made. On the other hand, I’ve seen a few that were thoughtful and well-done. Given the proliferation of these films in the past few years, I’m curious to hear what you think of them, especially if you’re a college student or young adult.

Do you go to the theater to watch Christian movies? Why or why not? 

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Should We Forget Church Altogether?

I’ve seen a few articles popping up around the internet lately suggesting that Christians should abandon the institution of the church and just “follow Jesus.” For example, the cover of Newsweek on April 9 had a modern-looking drawing of Jesus captioned with the words, “Forget the church. Follow Jesus” (you can find the related article here). I haven’t yet seen the movie Blue Like Jazz — I did read the book years ago – but it’s already generating discussion about the failures of the church and the idea of moving “beyond” church to something better. Proponents of this approach often cite the church’s history of violence, hypocrisy, and heresy. The solution, it is argued, is for everybody to approach Jesus individually or in small communities with no formal hierarchy or structure. True spirituality is too individualistic to tie it down to an “institution.”

Nobody who has attended church for any significant period of time doubts that churches have problems. They tend to be filled with sinners. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect church, one free of conflict, pride, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. Most Christians have become irritated with their church at one time or another, and perhaps have even toyed with the idea of ditching the whole thing altogether.

Yet the problems caused by simply walking away from church would be worse than those present in the church itself.

First, Jesus established the Church (in a universal sense) and He seemed to think it was important (Matthew 16:18).

Second, the first Christians really believed that meeting together to worship God corporately was critical to their spiritual growth (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:4-25). Christians who stopped “meeting together” faced the very real danger of abandoning the important aspects of their faith.

Finally — and I think this an important point — meeting with other Christians reminds us weekly of our own imperfections and need for grace. It is true that churches are filled with sinners, just like the rest of the world. Christians in church, though, have (hopefully) come as sinners looking for grace. In other words, we’re sick like everybody else, but we’re sick people who know we need the cure. And we need to remind one another of our constant and perpetual dependence on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We need to remind one another that we’re not alone in our sin. We need to remember — through worship, preaching, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper — that provision has been made for our sin. We do that shoulder to shoulder, face to face, because we just can’t do it on our own. I tend to forget what’s important, and it doesn’t take me all week to do so. So I need you to remind me and to challenge me to refocus. That’s what church accomplishes when we approach it appropriately.

What’s more, as we recognize our own deficiencies and praise God for His grace, we’re empowered through His Spirit to share the Gospel with the world. We have to do that together as well. I don’t know the people that you know or have the abilities that you have. And vice versa. The Great Commission is a task that requires community and organization. I think that’s one of the key reasons Jesus founded the Church, and one of the reasons that the early Christians thought it was so important.

Be very skeptical anytime somebody suggests simply doing away with a practice that has been going on for thousands of years. Yes, there are things that we need to reconsider and do differently, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes there is a good reason for continuing an old tradition. In this case, it’s because it mattered to Jesus. I think that’s a good reason why it ought to matter to us as well.

If you go to church regularly, what do you value about it? What do you gain in your walk with Christ by attending and participating in it?

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You Can’t Capture Everything On Instagram

Last Saturday my wife and I took our kids to a little country festival about an hour from our home. There were games, rides, a petting zoo, and all the junk food the little ones could eat.

My two daughters were particularly interested in one really cool trampoline activity. Each kid was attached to a harness, and the harness was connected to two bungee cables. Once the child was secured, she would jump up and down on a trampoline. The bungee cables pulled her much farther into the air than she would have otherwise gone — perhaps fifteen or twenty feet high.

My seven-year-old and four-year-old both desperately wanted to try it, so we waited in line for twenty minutes and paid our fourteen bucks.

It was worth every second of waiting  and every penny we paid. There’s simply no way to describe the look of sheer joy on my daughters’ faces as they bounced up and down on that little trampoline. It was a mixture of fascination and unadulterated delight, the sort of excitement that we rarely experience once we’re busy, stressed, responsible adults.

I tried to snap a picture. I figured I would Tweet it or put it on Instagram or somehow let everybody know how cool this moment was. But I couldn’t get a picture that remotely captured the essence of the moment. All I managed to capture was a blurry picture of a child in mid-air. The emotional background was lost on my tiny camera.

So I put down my phone and decided to just experience the moment. I watched both girls jump up and down and up and down and I laughed as they laughed and relished a moment of pure joy.

And I remembered: Some things are better experienced without technology. Sometimes you just have to be there. From a theological perspective, we might call this the importance of presence. Or being incarnational. Jesus didn’t merely watch us from heaven through a divine set of filters — He came here to live among us. He spoke to us, looked at us, touched us, and listened to us. Sometimes we forget that living together and loving others means that we fully engage with the people standing in front of us. Without the phones or the computers or the cameras.

I’m not against smart phones — actually, I really like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. I think they are powerful tools for mass communication. However, they simply cannot replace unfiltered human interaction. I think most of us know that instinctively, but it’s easy to forget. When I take my kids to the park or to the bookstore or to the zoo, most of the parents are gazing at their phones while their kids play in the background. Honestly, I’m often one of those phone-gazers all too often. Sometimes it feels safer to disengage with those in the same room with you and instead to interact in an online world.

I suspect that, years from now, my friends and family won’t remember much (if anything) I’ve posted online. But hopefully they will remember me — a conversation, a pat on the back, a compassionate look in the eye, a few moments of silent camaraderie. I pray, then, that I’ll be a person who is truly present, a person who reflects Jesus’ willingness to enter into the lives of those around me and face the wonderful, yet difficult, task of loving them.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll snap some really cool pictures along the way.

Question: How do you balance true presence in a world of social media? Do you think social media poses any threat to our ability to engage in real life?

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Can You Have Too Little Student Debt?

I’ve written before on the subject of student loans, but I ran across a very interesting article on the subject this week. The University of Utah has the lowest average student loan debt in the country among traditional four-year colleges. Most of us probably think that’s a good thing — after all, don’t we want students to graduate with minimal debt to pay off in future years?

However, administrators and experts question whether too little debt actually hurts graduates in the long run. The theory is that students who take out few or no loans are often working long hours outside of school to make ends meet and to pay tuition. As a result, they tend to graduate later and make lower grades. Consequently, they sacrifice earnings during their early 20s, and they have lower earning potential.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. It seems like one’s chosen career field makes a difference here. For example, one student in the article is working as a realtor and he hopes to be a realtor after finishing school. Why would he sacrifice the work experience and take on debt to finish school faster?

On the other hand, it might be beneficial for students hoping to go to graduate school to finish college faster and have more time to focus on their undergraduate studies. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, your grades are important. Not to mention that finishing your undergrad degree when you’re 25 delays your career until you’re nearly 30 or older.

So do you think in some cases it makes sense to take out student loans in order to finish school faster? If so, where’s the acceptable threshold? At what point does the debt become too overwhelming?

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What Makes It “Church”?

I had a great discussion this week with our college interns and one my fellow pastors on the subject of church. Here’s the question: What makes a gathering of Christians a “church” as opposed to a parachurch or a concert or something else entirely?

For example, my town is the home of Breakaway, the largest weekly gathering of Christian college students. They meet to sing worship songs and to hear a message from the Scripture. According to the director (a friend of mine), Breakaway is not a church. But why not? Have you ever thought about what separates a parachurch like Breakaway from a church?

What about a concert by your favorite Christian musician? I’ve heard a few of them refer to their concerts as “church services.” How about a seminary chapel service? Or a student organization on campus?

What characteristics constitute a church? I’m going to make an attempt at listing a few that I think distinguish a church from other gatherings. Some of these will overlap with other organizations and meetings, but I think a church ought to have all of these characteristics:

1. A church is a gathering of Christians. Obvious, yes, but there are some groups calling themselves churches who do not believe in the central tenets of Christianity. For example, a “church” that denies the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection might be a religious gathering, but it isn’t a church in the biblical sense. I realize that many parachurch organizations meet this requirement as well.

2. A church exists to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). This isn’t necessarily a distinctive characteristic of churches. Many organizations, like Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), exist for this purpose as well. However, I can’t leave it off because a church isn’t really a church if it doesn’t do the task of discipleship.

3. A church is governed by a local group of elders or leaders to whom the membership is accountable. I realize that there are all sorts of governing structures for churches. Even those who have denominational leadership at a national level also have local leadership for each church. Generally that leadership consists of more than one person and has the authority to discipline or remove members if necessary. This is one area in which many parachurch organizations differ from churches. Especially with campus groups, the adult leadership is either non-existent or located in another city. Other groups are led by an individual, but not by a plurality of leaders. A few have a leadership structure similar to the local church, and in those cases it’s not always easy to discern into which category the group belongs.

3. A church regularly practices the ordinances of baptism and communion. “Regularly” could mean every week, once a month, or even less. Baptism serves as the church’s initiation rite, a public declaration of faith in Christ and membership in the community. Communion serves as the church’s affirmation of the forgiveness of sins provided by the death of Christ. It’s a confession of faith that Christian churches have always had in common and a practice in which they have always participated (Acts 2:42).

4. A church does not deliberately restrict itself to one ethnicity, age group, gender, or nationality. Some churches are unintentionally homogenous, while others are homogenous because of sin. Nonetheless, a church is a place where everybody is welcomed into membership on the basis of their belief in Jesus Christ. Nobody is included or excluded solely because of external factors. On the other hand, many parachurch organizations restrict themselves to a particular affinity group: college students, women, men, etc. That’s not necessarily bad for the purposes of the parachurch, but it doesn’t constitute a church. The diversity of the church ought to be a reflection of God’s kingdom (Revelation 5:9-10).

5. A church gathers around the worship of God and the teaching of His Word. Some parachurch organizations do this as well. Much like the Great Commission, though, a church really isn’t a church without this, so I had to include it here.

Some of you might disagree with one or more of these characteristics. You might add some, as well, so I’d like to hear your thoughts. What constitutes a “church” in the biblical sense of the word? 

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It’s Not About The Bunny

I heard a radio ad this morning for an Easter sale at some department store: “For some people, Easter is about colors. For kids, it’s all about the hunt. It’s the promise of the spring harvest. It means making potato recipes.”

Something’s missing here. It’s not that I think hunting eggs is evil — my own kids have participated in Easter egg hunts at this time of year. The Easter Bunny isn’t a symbol of pure evil, although a human-sized bunny who walks on his hind legs is a bit frightening.

It’s just that bunnies and eggs and pastels are laughably insignificant compared to what Easter truly represents. It’s kind of interesting to me that some Christians get quite angry about Santa Claus at Christmas time because he distracts us from Jesus, yet I never hear a peep (pun intended) about how Easter has been trivialized to a much greater extent. Without Easter, though, Christmas would have no significance at all. Without Easter, Christmas is a quaint story about a baby born in a barn. With Easter, though, Christmas is an unbelievable story of a God who became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). Christmas becomes the story of a Savior who died for our sins and rose again as a promise of eternal life.

At Easter we celebrate the climax of human history. God raised Jesus from the dead, indicating that He has defeated sin and death once and for all (Acts 2:24; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Paul tells us that without Easter, our churches might as well turn off the lights and go home for some good potato salad. Eat as much as you can, by the way, because awesome potato salad is about as good as it’s going to get.

But with Easter, we have the hope of resurrection. We know that one day Jesus will return and make everything right. We know that our sin no longer alienates us from God. To put it plainly, Easter is the most important holiday we celebrate as Christians. That’s why reducing it to nothing more than bunnies and eggs and spring sales is tragic.

I’m not suggesting we go boycott the local JC Penney or push the mall Easter bunny down the stairs. Instead, I’m suggesting that we constantly remind our families and our friends of what Easter represents. It’s easy to get sidetracked. But there is no greater opportunity to winsomely and graciously present God’s free gift of eternal life than at Easter. I wonder what would happen if we woke up on Easter morning with the same enthusiasm with which we greet Christmas morning? It would be wonderful if we began to view Easter as a critical event for Christians, the high point of our calendar. It would be even better if we communicated our hope to the world around us.

Do you have any ideas about how you and I can remember and graciously remind others of the importance of Easter? How can we do that well when our culture reduces it to a series of auxiliary activities and symbols?

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