1 Peter 5:1-5 – Humble Service

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”(NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses two groups of people: Leaders and followers, the older and the younger, shepherds and sheep. Both have their distinct roles and places, yet both are to share together in the virtue of humility. Whether pastor or parishioner, mentor or mentee, humble service is to characterize all.

I spent a good chunk of my ministerial life working with college students and twenty-somethings. One of the reasons I like being around young adults is that they have a very well attuned barometer to hogwash coming from older folks. Unlike children and more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment. They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at five-thousand feet in the air.

All of us have likely had the experience of not being able to explain why, but a certain interaction with a person just seems off – it smacks of being a bit too contrived and manipulative. The other person might talk a good line, yet your instincts tell you different. So, for example, if a church pastor or leader seems to be just going through the motions as if the work is a necessary evil, then there might be something behind it. It is always a good idea to stop and listen to your gut speak.

Difficult for many people is that life is not so much about learning a certain skill set, as if we were in a trade school. The skills approach relies upon learning to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others, and then get a solid expected outcome. That kind of approach is where the finely attuned baloney meter goes off in others. They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I genuinely believe humility is the cornerstone of all virtues and the foundation to effective personal interactions and group dynamics. Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person – there is only competition and a twisted hierarchy of those with power and those without. If humility is absent, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

However, with humility, who we are as people matters. I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel. Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing and consulting of one another with fresh collaboration which blesses the world. This is less a skill set, and more of just being a good human being.

Humility is a posture, not a skill to leverage for what we want. A humble disposition pursues learning, growth, and development. It sits with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening. Humility sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovers something about self, God, and the interaction between each.

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness of God’s presence. It may not mean that shepherds and leaders have clear assurances and certain plans, yet it will surely involve living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan. 

No one can malarkey their way through the Christian life; everyone needs the posture of humility. Jesus will be our Teacher, yet we will need to bring ourselves to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between God and self through the person of Jesus. It begins with humility. And the rewards of such living are permanent and eternal.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, and accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for your name’s sake. Amen.

Young Adults and Faith

            It is no secret for many churches that the millennial generation, particularly ages 18-24, are leaving organized religion.  A lot has been written in the past several years about why they have left.  But let’s turn this around and think about what makes those who do not stray stay in the institutional church.  My own anecdotal evidence of why this age group either stays or leaves leads to three reasons:  the involvement, or lack thereof, in church ministry beyond the youth group; the impact of the family; and, whether there are basic spiritual disciplines practiced, or not.
            I have noticed over the years of serving in the church that when teenagers have a significant involvement in a ministry that reaches across the span of the church community (i.e. worship services, small groups), then they are much more likely to understand that they are needed in the Body of Christ.  I have also observed that when kids are raised in a spiritual environment that places emphasis and importance on church ministry engagement, they are exposed to it being modeled and are likely to follow the example.  Finally, there is simply no substitute for basic practices in the Christian life getting started as early as possible.  Teens which learn to read their Bibles and pray tend to keep up those disciplines into adulthood.
            Ministry experience is one thing, but there is evidence to back up some of these observations.  Sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, says that his extensive research demonstrates that highly religious teenagers are not very likely to become very un-religious five years later.  Smith points to six factors that lead to the strength of religious practice among emerging adults:  strong parental religion; frequent personal prayer; high importance of religious faith; frequent reading of Scripture; many supportive religious adults; and, doubts about religious beliefs.
            Each one of these factors can be unpacked and examined in much more detail.  But for our purposes here in simply broaching the subject, it should become increasingly clear that we can exude a good deal of influence toward the younger generations within the church.  Whether a young adult is devoted, regular, sporadic, or disengaged in church might be their personal decision, but it is within our corporate sphere of control as to whether we will leave an impactful impression upon him/her for positive good.
            Indeed, from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures we get the admonition to leave such a persuasive influence upon our kids.  “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).
            If Christianity is a commitment that centers round all of life, then we can reasonably expect that this will leave an enduring and endearing legacy.  But if Christianity is something that exists to be present only when needed, then we ought not to be surprised when Christian faith is jettisoned by young adults who find something else that addresses their wants. 


            Inter-generational ministry, then, is not really something that is a nice notion, but is vital to the ongoing faith development of teens into adulthood and beyond.  It is the sage leadership team that thinks through these realities in their own context and develops some concrete ministry.  After all, the Christian life is not just for a season; it is to move and mature over a lifetime.

We Need a Few Gray Hairs

In my previous post I emphasized that older generations need to understand how the younger generations think and act.  I want to balance that with pondering church from the elder perspective.  What do you think of when I say “senior adult ministry?”  We almost exclusively consider this to be a ministry to seniors rather than from seniors.  The bald fact is that ministry is fast becoming so focused on youth and younger generations that the church is being “juvenilized.”  Whereas a healthy focus on youth can bring great spiritual renewal and vitality to the church, focusing too heavily on it brings a watered-down understanding of the gospel and the Christian life that is quite unhealthy.

My wife and youngest daughter recently took a mission trip to Joplin, Missouri.  They drove there and spent a week with an “older” couple from our church (in their late 70’s).  It was the New Testament letter of Titus in action for my family.  In fact, Titus chapter 2 stands everything on end by an emphasis of older persons mentoring younger people; it is ministry from seniors and not to them.  This “old” couple had more energy than anyone else on a mission team of over fifty people.  They ate everything put in front of them without complaining.  They worked everyone else in the ground.  They always had something positive to say in the middle of every adverse circumstance.  They had a can-do spirit that was matter of fact.  They loved without ever expecting anything in return.  You see, this couple is not an anomaly; our elders, who have lived the longest with the power of the Holy Spirit, are usually the most able to share the Father’s love in a Christ-like manner.

Values of thrift, simplicity, loyalty, faithfulness, wisdom, and maturity (which can only be gained over time!) are best learned neither from trial and error, nor from the school of hard knocks, but through prolonged exposure to the elders all around us.  Fools are fools because they ignore old people.  The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is a book that calls people to remember.  In addressing a group of foolish people who had forgotten God, chapter 32 verse 7 says, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations of long past.  Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain it to you.”

What would happen if churches constructed Sunday School programs based on Titus 2?  Can we even think the thought that church renewal could come through spunky and active elders?  Its high time that we in church leadership positions do two things:  first, teach the older persons for the expressed purpose of  them turning around and teaching the younger persons; and, second, stick those teens, twenty-somethings, and young parents out to pasture with godly elders so that they can feed off healthy green grass instead of just talking among themselves in a great circle of collective ignorance.  People rightly lament when there are no children or young families in a church.  We ought also to equally lament when there are no gray heads in the worship center.

Let us honor the old among us by learning from them, and allow them the respect and decency of listening and working together with them to the glory of God.

Keeping My Options Open

One of the great problems of today’s church, in my humble opinion, is that decades of generational ministry has led to people in the Body of Christ only relating to the parts of the body just like themselves.  Even within family units, parents have difficulty understanding teenagers and grandparents have a hard time relating to twenty-somethings.  We only exacerbate the problem by giving such a potpourri of offerings in the church (i.e. dare I say it?  a traditional service and a contemporary service) that the ages are segregated with no meaningful interaction.  In short, we just don’t know each other.  I have heard older generations bemoan the lack of commitment among younger people, and younger people complain of older folks as stuck in a rut.  I believe the onus is always on the older to reach the younger (the New Testament letter of Titus chapter 2, for example).  So, let’s reconsider the perspective that young people lack commitment.

There is a mantra that I have heard many students, twenty-somethings, and young families repeat over and over when considering what they will be doing this summer, how the next academic year will shake out, whether they will stick with a certain relationship or activity, how and when they may commit to any involvement, and if they might show up at a certain event or even church: “I’m keeping my options open.”

At first thought this sounds pretty wishy-washy.  But the thought in a young person’s head is typically one of not wanting to close doors that might be open to them, or to not burn bridges with anyone. They want to entertain as many promising options as they can, because they do not want to miss an opportunity, lose control of a situation, or get locked into something they aren’t sure of. Thus, many in the younger generations are typically loathe to settling down on any one thing.

This is why it is commonplace for people under 35 to try a wide variety of religious and spiritual organizations, and may never settle on just one. They move effortlessly between a large group meeting in one place and a bible study in another, and between a small traditional church and a big contemporary worship service. Spiritual experiences for them often take the form of freedom, exploration, spontaneity, and renewal.

Although it is important for all people to learn the value of loyalty and developing consistent routines centered in spiritual disciplines, in a younger person’s modus operandi they typically will not succumb to a dry faith that is done out of sheer duty or habit. So, instead of pressing or expecting them to be in our mold of devotion and faithfulness through closing doors and making consequential decisions, perhaps we ought to walk alongside them and join them in the journey they are on. The New Testament refers to Christianity as a road or a way, and the Christian life as a walk that we take with Jesus and the Spirit. It is in this walking together with another that we can help them consider the options that are before them, and provide counsel, wisdom, and warning concerning the forks in the road and the exits off the path. Younger generations can learn to forego certain options and commit to something particular when we take the time to journey with them.

So, rather than lament this generation’s lack of focus and ever-present flakiness, may we understand their desire to have genuine relationships with God and others that does not miss out on a vibrant life.

-How can we be a help, and not a hindrance to others in their journey?
-What can God do for and with individuals who keep their options open?
-Where is the Spirit taking a young person in his/her walk?
-What are your options in relating to particular persons, and generations of people?