Serving Millennials on the Journey Toward Significant Life
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On Temptation

Last Sunday I shared a sermon from Luke 4:1-13 which covers the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. As part of my study I read through John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation, which comprises several separate books written by Owen many years agoThough I wasn’t able to incorporate much of it into my sermon I found his pointedness about temptation and its push toward sinfulness to be especially convicting and helpful.

His framework became the backdrop I used for approaching the subject as a whole, even though I didn’t share much from his work. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

“It is to be feared that very many Christians have little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with them in their hearts.”

“Mortification of sin by self-strength, carried on by ways of self-discipline, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

“To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead, sin is alive, and will live.”

“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”

“Do not seek to empty your cup as a way to avoid sin, but rather seek to fill it up with the Spirit of life, so there is no longer room for sin.”

“Mortification of sin by self-strength, carried on by ways of self-discipline, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

Though pieces of this wonderful book were difficult to understand and work through, overall all Christians would be better for understanding what Owen highlights about temptation and sin.

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What Are People Looking For in a Church?

Throughout much of my time as a pastor I’ve been viewed as a young leader who should have insight into what “young people” want from a church. What makes people come to a church? What makes them stay? Whether I have any helpful insight on these questions remains to be seen, but I have been asked them too many times to count.

These conversations have picked up following a sermon I gave at my home church titled “The Intergenerational Church.” I have noticed churches are becoming more homogeneous. Meaning churches become reflective of themselves. This is true of age and race, and the lack of diversity means we rarely have to do the hard work of reaching out to someone completely different than us, which means we lose out on growth opportunities because we are relational beings who grow in community.

It’s becoming less and less common to see churches filled with a variety of ages. Often the older struggle to connect with the younger, and the younger sensing this lack of connection ultimately either leave altogether, leave to start their own thing, or leave to join a church full of people like them.

This reality is not a positive thing. We do not understand how to navigate close proximity with those unlike ourselves, to our own detriment. On the one hand the question of “how do I get more (pick your generation of choice) in my church?” is tired and antiquated, but on the other hand is the question is poignant and necessary, even though the answer is probably more than most are willing to endeavor toward.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things churches have done to try to accommodate or be relevant to people recently:

  • Coffee shops in church (everyone drinks coffee right?)
  • Theology and beer groups (everyone drinks beer right?)
  • Electric guitar and drums (everyone likes loud music right?)
  • Low light with candles (everyone wants good vibes and soft tones right?)

Feel free to tweet at me or comment below with your own examples, I’m sure there are plenty.

From my experience I believe people are looking for two specific things from a church:

RELATIONSHIP

The statement of “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” fits here. Can’t get them to join your groups or serve in your ministries? Maybe they don’t realize they are wanted. Maybe they haven’t been given a compelling vision about the power of knowing and being known by others.

There’s a reason most of the groups my wife and I have led meet in our home. A home gives a sense of comfort, lack of formality, and encourages people to let their guard down, all of which are vital if a group is going to grow in closeness with God and each other.

I asked a newer couple to my church what they were hoping to find in a church. One specific thing they said stood out to me: “We wanted people to know we were new.” In other words, they wanted people in the church to notice them and reach out. While some may look for the largest church in town hoping they can connect with God while sitting unnoticed in the back row, many who walk through the doors of a church long to be in a place where they can be known.

These are questions worth considering:

Do I open my home for people from my church? Do others do the same?

Do I know what’s happening in the lives of people at my church? Do others?

What sacrifices have I made to pursue relationships with others in my church?

GOD’S WORD

While previous generations may have been able to assume that God’s Word was foundational to society, today that is no longer the case. For many, The Bible is thought to be antiquated at best and promoting hate at worst. Yet the Bible’s claim upon itself is that it is God’s Word for us. It has something to say!

More than simply opening the Bible, people want to know what the Bible says today. What does God’s Word have to say that may hold transformative power in their lives?

Prioritizing God’s Word is about more than just asking your pastor to “preach the Word.” It’s about helping others learn the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27). It’s about helping people think theologically about life, and how to approach the ethical questions of our time through a biblical lens. It’s about more than just knowing a few well-known verses. It’s about helping people see life through the worldview of God’s Word.

Many churches faithfully preach from God’s Word, yet if the impact remains limited to a thirty-minute sermon on a Sunday it’s no wonder people today question whether the Bible is still relevant to us.

As a pastor I’ve come to recognize I have limited opportunities to impact the lives of others, so I’ve staked my claim at valuing relationship with others in my church community while pointing them to God’s Word. I pray God will continue helping me be faithful to those ends, for His glory.

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Our Created Design: The Pressure of Parenthood

Within the creation account of Genesis is the striking conversation God has within His Being: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). God who is relational in nature, loving and serving the other within Himself—Father, Son, and Spirit relating and caring for each other—from this foundation of who God is, He creates us. And we are created to reflect the same relational nature of God Himself.

One of the ways we see this created design in us is through the early stages of infant development after birth. As our most recent addition has grown (now over 3 months old! time flies) I’ve been thinking about this created design we have to relate with and care for one another.

Psychologists have studied the desire of infants to connect right out of the womb, in what is known as attachment theory. Attachment theory is basically the idea that we were born with a desire to connect and be loved in a secure environment, but not all of us receive that, and relational issues of trust and intimacy later in life can be connected to struggles infants had early in life.

I’ve been known to jokingly refer to attachment theory by saying it’s a good way to blame my parents for all my problems, but honestly, I find it helpful to consider as a parent and a pastor. Here’s how Richard Plass defines attachment theory in his wonderful book The Relational Soul:

“The quality and character of the programming we received early in life establishes a pattern of attachment that controls our relationships later in life.” 

In other words, God designed us to not only connect with others but to absorb their presence into our lives, especially when we are young.

Infants try to establish a connection with their environment. so that they can develop trust and stability, through the primitive instincts of sucking and eye contact. Primitive instincts are essential things humans do without being taught. They just happen. The sucking aspect is fairly important because it is also how infants feed themselves, and the eye contact instinct is obvious enough because you’ll always lose a staring contest to an infant. 

One of the tensions of parenthood is trying to create an environment that allows for meaningful connection between child and parent, but also produces children who are independent enough to make their own (smart) decisions. Balancing these two tensions is difficult and differs from child to child, moment by moment.

My life has undergone an incredible shift in the last decade since I started writing in this space. At the time I was attending graduate school, gaining work experience so I could have something on a resume. My marriage was also young, with no children in the picture.

Fast forward to today, I’ve built the work experience necessary to advance my career, I’ve finished school, and my marriage has advanced from years to beyond a decade. The family picture now includes 5 people instead of 2.

I’ve gone from thinking through experiences based primarily on how they impact me, to instead think about how they impact others. I’m no longer advancing for the sake of moving up, instead my advancements are to help others.

I share these pieces of information about attachment theory because previously I would think about attachment theory out of a curiosity of how my environments as an infant might have shaped me as an adult. But now I think of attachment theory in terms of what kind of environment I am creating for my children and the other people in my life.

Let this not be a discouragement in a “look another way I can fail in life” way, but the encouragement to ask the question, what kind of environment am I making for the people around me?

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The Reluctant Leader

My own story and call toward pastoral ministry is an interesting one because I’ve never felt 100% assurance of it being the perfect fit. I have always approached pastoral ministry with some level of reluctance. The question of “If not me then who?” has always been motivation enough for me to make the leap to moving that direction, however, and it has continued to be the motivating question that keeps me moving forward.

I am 110% certain there are more qualified and capable people that could do what I’m doing. This doesn’t mean I don’t have aspirations for my vocational life as a pastor, but my apprehension toward it has never truly gone away. Part of this is due to my own questions that have welled up from the beginning, but more so this has been amplified when people who I believed to be my friends brought the same questions as a judgment against my fit for the position. Of course, many other voices have provided different conclusions, but the underlying questions still remain rooted in me.

It is these questions, internally and externally, which have provided a level of what I now see as helpful reluctance toward pastoral ministry, because they often work at keeping me humble.

Not long ago a friend of mine asked me whether I could see him working in pastoral ministry as a vocation. He had all sorts of questions about his fitness for the calling. Did he have the necessary skills? Was he too late in life to pursue it? Were there other ways to fulfill what he sensed God was doing in him? In my estimation, he was (and is) somewhat reluctant and apprehensive about the whole thing. And yet, he is, without question, going to be a wonderful pastor.

Right around the same time as this conversation took place, another friend of mine declared to me that he was ready to take on leadership within the church and was hoping I could find the right place to “plug him in.” He had spent the previous months on what he described as “the sideline” and was now ready for “primetime.” He has a wide variety of leadership experience within churches and believed he was now ready to be utilized in a great way.

I compare these separate interactions because on the surface they are quite similar, both men sensing God was leading them toward serving within our locally gathered body in a greater way. Yet, these interactions could not have been more different.

One began with a question.

The other began with a declaration.

One came from a place of reluctance.

The other came from a place of aspiration.

One has no clue whether they are the right fit.

The other has expectations for their future influence.

Reluctant Leadership Isn’t Always Positive

Now certainly, this is not simply black and white. All leadership must involve some aspiration and desire to step up, and any leader without a hint of reluctance or questions is kidding themselves. It’s a mix, no question. Reluctance toward leadership isn’t always a positive either, it can manifest itself in positive and/or negative ways.

In the negative, it may look more like lacking motivation or passion for the responsibilities required; looking over the shoulder hoping someone else will pick up the pieces.

In the positive, the reluctant leader is “fervently motivated by his own conscience. He forces himself to embrace the fact that while this is not the destiny he would have chosen, it is his duty and he will follow it to the end” (David Brooks).

Moses is the quintessential example from the Bible, as he believed he couldn’t speak well enough, wasn’t brave enough; there had to be someone better. Yet his reluctance did not hinder him from leading the greatest redemption project in the history of the world. His reluctance provided a necessary humility and tenacity in negotiating with the most arrogant leader in the world.

Why Reluctance?

This is why reluctance can be powerful in leadership. From the start there is a sense of unknowing: is this the right fit? These questions keep the leader from believing they are bigger than the task.

There is also a great sense of hard-nosed tenacity toward the responsibility of leadership because reluctance never allowed the task to become too glamorous. Letdown is far less likely an outcome because the reluctant leader never believed it was going to be glorious.

I have tried to allow for my own reluctance and my own questions of fit to keep me humble and tenacious, and my experience with others has shown consistently that the most powerful leader in the room is always the reluctant one.

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Embracing Limitations

Back in 2016 I was an outspoken critic of the Christian support behind Donald Trump, who was at the time running to be the Republican nominee for the Presidential election that year. Following the election I made a conscious choice to no longer address political topics related to the current United States President through a public forum. This has been, at times, quite difficult, but most often it has been a great relief to hold myself to stay silent.

Since then I’ve been criticized as having a privileged position to be able to stay silent and not be negatively affected by my silence. I understand the criticism, but I found that my reactionary critiques were having negative effects on my life and relationships with others. Though my silence should not be considered support, I find silence to be the right posture for myself right now.

With so much wrong in the world there can be an underlying temptation to fix it all yourself. Speak out against injustice. Raise awareness for a cause. March in the parade. Push harder. Speak louder. Leverage your voice and your life for good.

All of these inclinations can likely produce a helpful good, but where do they end? Silence has been a forced limitation in my life, which has only led me to more greatly consider the value of other forced limitations. Yes, I could do many things, but the limits operate as helpful guardrails, reducing distractions, pushing me toward what truly deserves my focus. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

In Zack Eswine’s book Sensing Jesus he describes the desire we often have to do everything that could possibly be done, but that “Jesus will teach us to live with the things that we can neither control nor fix.”

When we believe we must do all the things we harm ourselves and often harm others. But when we embrace the limits of ourselves we are more greatly able to be present to the things God places right in front of us.

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Fuel for The Way

This is the final post in a series walking through Ronald Rolheiser’s book Sacred Fire, which profiles what he calls the 2nd or mature stage of discipleship with Jesus.

The first two posts look at two separate pitfalls common during this stage (pride and the temptation of a 2nd honeymoon), and the previous post looked the struggle of this season of life being disillusionment.

READ PART ONE | TWO | THREE

In the previous posts we’ve established that the 2nd stage of discipleship, roughly from ages 25 to 45 and beyond, is one focused on building a life through responsibilities and commitments. How these are focused on by the Christian is different than the previous stage of life, because instead of building a life for yourself, your focus shifts to giving your life away, for the sake of others.

This stage is when years quickly become decades because they’re focused on the kind of growth and success that comes through long-term endeavors. Rolheiser describes them this way: “Our adult years are a marathon, not a sprint, and so it is difficult to sustain graciousness, generosity, and patience through the tiredness, trials, and temptations that beset us through those years…we need help from beyond” (169).

Yes, you need help from beyond, because without it you cannot sustain the necessary strength and energy to keep up when years turn into decades. This strength is found in God through prayer.

The practice of prayer is vital because it provides you with the right amount of strength, to keep you reliant and powerful, humble and confident.

Too often in life you either see yourself in too negative a light or too positive a light. You are either a complete failure or the greatest person to ever live—weighed down or puffed up. Prayer not only connects you with the Almighty God, but gives you a steadying presence. This is why prayer is so necessary. Rolheiser describes it this way:

“We need to pray not because God needs us to pray but because if we do not pray, we will never find any steadiness in our lives. Simply put, without prayer we will always be either too full of ourselves or too empty of energy, inflated or depressed” (171).

But I need to admit to you, I find it hard to pray.

I often have an overwhelming sense that life is passing me by in what can often feel like pointless minutes of prayer. The warmth of God’s presence does not magically fill me as I say the words “Dear God.” Rolheiser says, “Our deepest greed is not for money, but for experience” (202). Prayer often feels like a waste of time instead of worth-while time. Why pray when there’s so much to do? 

This question is similar to the concern Mark Galli shared in his recent piece for Christianity Today—that we are too busy to enjoy God’s presence because God’s work is ever before us. Here’s how Galli describes this shift:

One of the jobs of the church is indeed to love the world. But when mission becomes the center, the focal point of the Christian life, I believe that life will inevitably degenerate into an active and busy religious life void of God.

I have noticed many within this 2nd stage of discipleship drawn to the ethos of motivation as their fuel for the way, whether it be in fitness, religion, parenthood, or life in general. Not far from the slogan of Nike (“Just do it!”), many are parroting and drawn to the message of “You can do this!” But this fuel cannot sustain, because it ultimately tempts you to prop yourself up, before you eventually fail. Left to your own strength, failure is the inevitable outcome.

Thankfully prayer is not this kind of fuel for the way. In fact, it is not fuel, it is a person. Prayer connects you with the presence of God. It does not prop you up, it props Him up. Prayer does not lead to an inevitable letdown, because it never created an unsustainable way to live.

Grace Naessens describes the importance of prioritizing prayer in a poem, and this summary is a helpful reminder from the beginning of what accomplishments deserve your focus:

I woke up early this morning and paused before entering the day;

I had so much to accomplish that I had to take time to pray.

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