Wednesday, April 23, 2014

3 Types of Young Adults in Your Church

Photo Credit: Rollan Budi (Creative Commons)
There are three key elements for a young adults ministry at your church. So what is a young adult? We hosted a "young adults" Christmas banquet this past year at our Church, with a table of 18-year-olds who had just graduated from high school, and 30-year-olds who were already in grad school or well into their careers. Are they both welcomed to the table? Absolutely. But they're also in very different stages of life.

What does it mean to be an adult? Is adulthood an arbitrary age? I remember my college professor in adolescent psychology class going through the various ages when we could, perhaps, be considered adults (at least in the USA): 

  • At 13, you lose the discount at movie theaters and theme parks for being a "child." 
  • At 16, you can drive a car and get a job.
  • At 17, you can see an R-rated movie by yourself. 
  • At 18, you can smoke, vote, and join the military. 
  • At 21, you can purchase and drink alcohol.
  • At 25, you can rent a vehicle without financial penalty. 

Car rental is our ultimate cultural marker for adulthood? These markers change depending on context--you can't get a full driver's license until about age 19 in Canada, which is the same age you can start buying and drinking alcohol. The average age for getting married in North America is around 27, and steadily getting older. With emerging adulthood as an increasingly present sociological phenomenon in our culture, defining young adulthood has become more complex than ever.

Since taking on the role of overseeing young adults ministry at my church, our leadership has noticed three unique categories of young adults in our context (ages are approximate):

Age 18-24, Single: University Years. Whether they're actual university students or not, these years are a deeply formative season of life. This is the beginning stage of adulthood, the first venture into significant autonomy from parents, and a time where questions of identity, vocation, and affinity feel ever-present and urgent. This can be both a paradoxically lonely and social stage of life, with the constant interaction of dorm life or the isolation of a basement apartment.

Age 24-30, Single: Emerging Adulthood. Beyond the college stage, these young adults have had some significant life experience, whether or not they've gone to university or post-high school education (most have). Beginning graduate school or starting the process of finding a solid career path--or completely starting over and exploring vocational options again--this stage of young adulthood feels like the most complex, and the stage that struggles the most with finding a sense of belonging in a church community. This is also the widest maturity range for young adults--some are struggling with extended adolescence and still heavily reliant on their parents, while others are solid and secure in their identity and direction in life.

Age 18-30, Married: Young Marrieds. When a young adult gets married, everything changes. Whether we like it or not, being married in our culture is a significant cultural marker of adulthood, and even the youngest married couple can *feel* chronologically older than their single counterparts. Yet they're still young adults who need mentors, a community of friends and peers, and a place to contribute  with their gifts.

We want to love and embrace every young adult, beyond types or categories. These have just proven helpful in understanding the unique mini-stages in the expanding stage of emerging adulthood.

Do you see these different types of young adults in your context? How is you or your church/community intentionally loving and embracing each type of young adult? What can the church do to combat extended adolescence and offer a place of belonging for every young adult it encounters?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

6 Predictions for the Future of Youth Ministry

First, a disclaimer: I really have no idea what I'm talking about here. I haven't done any official research, worked on a PhD for these predictions, or examined data. This post is entirely anecdotal and from personal observation, experience, and conversations from leading and learning in youth ministry for a decade in American and Canadian contexts. I'm going to throw these six predictions out there and just see what the youth ministry tribe thinks:

Here's my forecast for what North American youth ministry will look like in ten (10) years...

1. The range for a youth ministry will be from age 8 to age 35. With puberty starting earlier and extended adolescence becoming ubiquitous, a youth pastor will be responsible for shepherding third graders going through puberty as well as 32-year-olds who are still struggling with their sense of identity and autonomy. I still believe the church can become a micro-culture where young people are viewed as potential-filled adults and treated as such, but I think the greater culture may go this route if it continues on the same trajectory, and the church (and youth workers!) will need to find a way to respond accordingly.

2. The drastic decrease of the full-time youth pastor position in churches. The only churches able to afford a full-time youth pastor will be the large suburban megachurches, mostly in evangelical circles in the United States. The vast majority of youth workers will be part-time or volunteer-based youth ministry, and the primary youth workers (apart from parents) will be teachers/professors, coaches, and counselors. Churches will have to become more innovative and collaborative in their youth ministry practices, potentially having more regional youth ministries and partnerships between churches to love the teens in the surrounding neighbourhoods. I wonder what this shift could mean for colleges and seminaries with youth ministry degrees and professorial staff.

3. Youth ministry resourcing organizations will become entirely online and regional. With the advent of the Internet and blogging/tweeting/Facebooking world, the age of the huge youth ministry convention will be over, and the one-size-fits-all curriculum and training that comes from many organizations will go by the wayside. What works in a Catholic setting in Seattle simply doesn't work the same for a Baptist in Nashville. This regional emphasis will clear the way for smaller contextual gatherings and giving voice to a wider variety of youth workers. It will also mean having to discern and sort through the mass of content being created--anyone can create their own website, start a consulting/coaching program, or publish their own book and curriculum, meaning there will simply be more resources (good and not-so-good) to choose from.

4. The traditional family structure of "two married parents with biological children" will be the vast minority. Single-parent homes, divorced parents, blended families, gay parents raising kids, foster and adopted children, and grandparents or other family members raising children will be more of a norm. As the culture is redefining family, this will radically change the entire concept of "family ministry" for churches, as well as increase the need for individualized familial care and counsel. As the family system becomes more complex, so do many of the issues for adolescent identity formation.

5. Families--Christian and non-Christian--will have little to zero Biblical knowledge. As the North American culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, expecting that parents and teens will be familiar with common Bible stories taught in Sunday school will be unrealistic (because Sunday school programs won't exist). Young people will be more familiar with the filmic versions of Jesus or Bible characters (Moses, Noah, etc.) than the characters in the Biblical accounts, and with apps/electronic devices becoming more normative for reading habits, having a Bible or a daily devotion--aka "quiet time"--will be quite different. People read and learn differently in the Internet age; the Bible as literature will be understood and interpreted in new ways by the next generation of readers, requiring a shift in how we teach the Bible and theology.

6. Relationships marked by grace and truth will still matter. It's always been this way. Whatever the future holds, a long obedience in the same direction with a few close Jesus-following friends and mentors will always endure. Beyond programming, culture, demographics, or trends, fostering authentic relationships between adults and youth will continue to be the mark of healthy youth ministry, no matter the age.

What do you think? Which predictions do you think could be accurate, and which sound absurd? Share your thoughts and forecasts in the comments.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On Still Being an Evangelical, Even When I Don't Want to Be

What comes to mind when you hear the word "evangelical?"

Christian. Conservative. Good morals. Family values. Those are all fairly positive things. But let's be honest, we could make a less-positive list:

Judgmental. Hypocritical. Narrow minded. Anti-gay. Pro-gun. Anti-culture. Angry Bible-tumping doctrine police.

When World Vision made a public spectacle a few weeks ago of their indecisiveness about hiring openly gay employees, it put the nail in the coffin for many who were on the fence about the evangelical way. Thousands of people dropped sponsorships of children in favour of taking a political stance, causing people already frustrated with the culture wars to take a long, hard look at whether or not they wanted to play any part in this subculture. Evangelicals became known as anti-gay, willing to stop serving children in poverty for political agenda, and wishy-washy about important public decisions.

Not long after that decision, I made a passing comment to some youth ministry friends about being evangelical, to which they asked, "would you still identify yourself with that term?" Evangelical. After thinking about it briefly, I affirmed that I would, but not because of what the word means now. I'm an evangelical for its origins and roots, what it was meant to be, and has strayed from being.

The origins of the word "evangelical" come from the Greek word euangelion, meaning "gospel" or "good news." The original intent for the evangelical movement was an emphasis on the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and the spreading of this good news through word and action. The first evangelicals loved the Bible, were devoted to being in small groups committed to holy living, and focused on individuals coming to know Jesus. They were never the best at engaging with culture--they were primarily a reform movement calling individuals to piety and holiness, being distinct from the surrounding world--or fostering a deep sense of community, as the emphasis was on individual salvation. Nevertheless, the heart behind the movement was one of being good news and sharing good news.

Evangelicals should be good news people. We're to be ambassadors for Christ, salt and light in a flavourless and dark world, a body of believers called to be humble and gentle, patient and loving, unified and peaceful, caring for the poor and marginalized in society, and known for our deep and unconditional love for others.

A people of humility and grace, love and peace, gentleness and patience--this is good news in a world of polarization, isolation, consumerism, and fear. 

Is this how the current evangelical subculture is known?

With slow-to-change structures and institutions, cheesy Christian literature and filmmaking, the cult of celebrity with megachurches and glitzy preachers, evangelism and apologetic scare tactics, too much emphasis on programs and "fun" in youth ministry instead of simply following Jesus, and often being lumped into the same category as George W. Busy, televangelists, or those bearded guys from "Duck Dynasty" (at best) or the Westboro Baptist Church (at worst), evangelicals aren't an easy tribe for leaders and pastors who want to see change, healthy engagement with culture and art, a radical humility and openness to dialogue, less programming and more discipleship, and being known for following Jesus instead of a political or subcultural agenda.

I'll admit, I'm often tired of the whole thing, and want to throw in the towel and become a high school English teacher or a professional movie-watcher. (That's a legit vocation, right?). I'm weary of trying to explain how I'm different than the other evangelicals and disagree with many aspects of the subculture, even though I still love them and I'm in the tribe. It feels like trying to defend and explain one's crazy relative to a friend who's come for dinner--the grandparent who frequently says inappropriate sexist or racist remarks at the table, the uncle who drinks too much, the sibling who spouts off political ideologies with a fervor that shuts down any conversation. Oh my gosh, you whisper apologetically to your friend, that's just my crazy family. They're awkward and inappropriate. That's not really me, you know. But I guess I love 'em. They're family, after all.

I suppose I'm an evangelical for now because they're my family. They're one tribe in God's church, His body and bride. I still think we can be good news people. I still think the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven is for everyone, the Bible is true and good and wise, and following Jesus can be a radical culture-shaping movement of love (without the politicking). Even though I don't want to spend my life trying to "fix" evangelicalism--an impossible task for any individual--I do want to spend it being good news for others, living as a signpost for the kingdom of heaven on earth. I recently found comfort in Sarah Bessey's words on her blog post to those who stay:  

Thank you for ministering within imperfect structures. Thank you for laying down your life to teach Sunday school and chaperone youth lock-ins, for carpooling the seniors and vacuuming the vestry. Thank you for stocking the church library and making phone calls, for doing the mundane daily work that creates a community. Thank you for meeting with college girls for coffee. Thank you for showing up when we get married and when we have our babies and when we are sick and when we are grieving. When we die, thank you for holding our families close.

Thank you for staying put in slow-to-change structures and movements. Thank you for being faithful. Thank you for taking a long and a high view of time, for waiting it out. You have the thankless job of elder boards and deacon elections, church constitutions and consensus building within community. This is not the work for the faint of heart.
You aren’t better than the ones who go, but you aren’t foolish or blind or unconcerned or uneducated or unthinking. I know this. You have weighed your choices, more than anyone will know. You chose this, you choose this, and you will keep choosing this.

Jesus isn’t an evangelical. But he lives and moves and has his being among the evangelicals, too. 

I want to be a good news person and invite others to do likewise. For now, that's enough to remain connected to the evangelical tribe.

What do you think? Share in the comments.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Remembering Twice

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?

Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?"
(Psalm 77:1-9)

We all have these days. Or weeks. Or years.

It's how I've felt all week, discouraged and in a funk of sorts, tired and cynical about following the Lord.

I remembered, I meditated, I pondered, I prayed...and I ended up groaning.

Crying out to God for strength and comfort, pleading for a moment of respite from the stress and burden, seemingly to no avail.

He doesn't answer. At least not how I'd want, or in the immediate moment where I'd like him to intervene. The promise of comfort feels put on hold, as if God's presence were lingering in a queue only inching forward every few minutes, God in His propriety patiently awaiting His turn to move forward.

I imagine Jesus in the garden, asking the Father to take away the cup of wrath and judgment he was about to drink. I imagine him making eye contact with Peter at the midnight trial, the moment immediately after Peter has denied their friendship. I imagine him on the cross, crying out to the Father, "why have you forsaken me?" in anguish and futility.

Then I remember....

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
(Psalm 77:10-12)

I remembered, I meditated, I pondered, I prayed...and I end up sighing with relief.

I remember His faithfulness on the cross. I recall His active presence and providence for those who have come before. Abraham. Jacob. Joseph. Moses. Elijah. David. Jeremiah. Jesus. I bring to mind the moments in my own history where He has provided, when He showed up just in time to heal and restore, breaking through the queue and into my soul.

I remember twice. In the first meditation, I am honest about my own brokenness and frustration and longing and despair, crying out to God with my anxiety and burden. This moves me to keep remembering, to dig deep into history and recall circumstances beyond the immediate. In the second meditation, I am honest about the Lord's character and faithfulness, His provision and power and mercy and love.

In the first remembering, my spirit grew faint. In the second remembering, my spirit is strengthened and comforted.

Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

(Psalm 77:13-20)

The path God has for us often leads us through valleys--through the mighty waters--even when His guiding presence is unseen. He goes before us in faithfulness. Remember twice. Remember through the pain and frustration, leading into remembering faithfulness and hope.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Filters, or How Instagram is Making Me More Honest

An Instagram photo of my daughter playing in our neighbourhood #filtered
I'm on Instagram (find me here) and love the idea of being able to edit and share the snapshots from my life with friends and family. Plus, I get to explore the various pictures from around the globe and stay a bit more connected with my long-distance friends and family. Even though I'm not enthusiastic about the constant stream of selfies, pictures of various dinners, or the increasing number of hashtags, one of these latter designations stands out to me:


Through the built-in filters and editing tools on Instagram, VSCO, and various other apps, the iPhone and other mobile devices quickly become portable photo editing stations. Instantly, my ordinary picture of my boring life becomes artsy and creative. That selfie I just took? Add a filter, and it's a veritable work of art. The random snapshot of my lunch? Adjust the shading and exposure to create an instant gourmet meal.

With Instagram photos, the filtered image often becomes more "real," more "cool" than the reality itself.

What if we could just remove the filters? What if we didn't need a filter to make our image appear cool or creative or unique or attractive? This is why the #nofilter tag stands out to me. It's essentially saying "this photo is creative and artistic enough that it doesn't require editing or filtering."

What if I lived my life with #nofilter?

What if we already had all the image we needed, the imago dei stamped into our souls? What if we could just revel in the beauty God has created without having to edit it? What would an honest, authentic #nofilter life look like?

Authenticity, messiness, being real. That's what matters, right?


And no.

Yes, we should revel in the authentic beauty of the imago dei, recognizing that we are inherently good and valuable and true. Vulnerability and honesty matter. Jesus had plenty of harsh things to say about hypocrisy and doing religious acts out of false motives. We can, and should, be open and honest about both our beauty and brokenness. We shouldn't feel the need to cover up and hide our flaws out of fear or condemnation, because there's no condemnation in Christ.

Yet editing is required. It's called sanctification, and it's the process of becoming more whole, more human, all through the salvific power of the Divine Artist who created us in His image. When we embrace authenticity and honesty without filters or editing, we end up reveling in our brokenness. No filter required; let's just be honest and real here. But this worship of authenticity doesn't lead closer to Jesus. It just leads to being more real about my inadequacy. As my friend Luke wrote on his blog today, "the temptation of the new age is to think that loudly proclaiming my 'not goodness' is being good." A healthy authenticity uses editing and a filter to hone and emphasize the image of God in us, while cropping and removing the grunge of our brokenness.

Let us live honest, gracious, humble, obedient lives of integrity. That's a better #nofilter way of life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Futility of Existence

This video of a clearly inebriated man attempting to overcome a fence must have some sort of spiritual parallel. It's equally affecting and hilarious. Enjoy.

(ht to kottke)

On Fear, or Leadership Lessons from Astronauts

This post originally appeared at Canadian Youth Worker:

The TED 2014 conference came to Vancouver, BC last month, and I've been catching up on some of the 18-minute talks. One of the most fascinating talks is from astronaut Chris Hadfield. His description of exploring space is captivating and winsome, but beyond his cosmic adventures, Hadfield goes deeper into what it means to embrace risk, move beyond fear, and step into danger for the sake of beauty (see the talk here if the embed below doesn't work):

Money Quote"...the key to that is by looking at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger, where is the real risk? What is the real thing that you should be afraid of? Not just a generic fear of bad things happening. You can fundamentally change your reaction to things so that it allows you to go places and see things and do things that otherwise would be completely denied to you."

In the Bible, the most frequent command from God to people is not “worship me” or “be kind” or even “love others.” It’s simply this: don’t be afraid. 

Do not fear. 

Why does this command come up so often? Because fear has to do with punishment and death. It comes from sin. Fear of disease, fear of rejection, fear of death—it all finds its roots in sin. But Jesus has conquered fear and sin and death, and offers us life and grace and unconditional love.

Here is the good news: we don’t have to be afraid any more in Christ. I have all sorts of fears and insecurities and anxiety, and those will probably always creep up in my heart. I'm afraid of what others will think of me. I'm afraid of losing my job due to making a significant programmatic change. I'm afraid of burning out. But I recall God's promises in 1 John 4: there is no fear in love, because perfect love casts out fear, and if I’m loved--and I am--then I don’t have to be afraid any more. Like Hadfield's reminder about spiders, we only need to do the research in order to move beyond the perceived danger and figure out what we really need to fear: God alone.

Fear not. Live courageously this week, knowing that the love of your Father means we don't have to be afraid.

Friday, April 11, 2014

5 Questions to Gauge Leadership Capacity

I'm a new contributor to the LeaderTreks blog, a youth ministry organization devoted to the training and resourcing of youth leaders. This marks my first post for LeaderTreks, on how to gauge and evaluate leadership capacity in youth ministry. Read on:

I once spoke with a youth ministry friend whose job was under probation. He clearly was anxious. This evaluation was not due to sin issues, lack of ministry passion, or complaining parents or teenagers. The issue, as explained by his superiors, was this: “Attendance is down in your program, so we’re unsure about your leadership capacity. You may have reached the maximum level of your leadership." 

What they meant was, “The crowds aren’t as big as they once were. The program doesn’t feel as cool or engaging. Maybe you aren’t a good leader.” 

This wasn’t the healthiest means of leadership evaluation. It failed to truly evaluate my friend or position him for success. He became less focused on his personal development and growth. And he watched his fluctuating attendance like a hospital monitor plugged into his ministry. If attendance ever flat-lined, his job was over. 

How do you measure leadership capacity?

Does successful ministry leadership mean attracting bigger crowds? Appearing hip, trendy, and cool? Growing a social media presence? Giving passionate talks? Is it possible to discern a person’s maximum level of leadership? That makes it sound like ministry a role-playing game, and we’re merely trying to “level up” as leaders.
I believe we can measure leadership capacity, but it’s not determined by program attendance. Our analyses should be more qualitative than quantitative. Here are five questions to better evaluate leadership capacity.
Click here to read the five questions

What do you think: how do you measure leadership capacity?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Spiritual Malnourishment, or Why Gluten and Celery are Unhealthy for Maywards

Something wasn't quite right. For a few months, he'd been complaining of stomach aches, staring at me through discouraged eyes as he pushed away from the dinner table. My four-year-old was nearly same height and weight he was as a three-year-old, with skinny limbs and an enlarged stomach, like the malnourished children one sees on child sponsorship commercials. His preschool teachers had noticed how lethargic he acted, yawning almost constantly and lacking the vibrant energy of most preschoolers.

As parents, we were concerned, and took him to see the doctor to be tested for celiac disease, a gluten-related condition. The blood test came back negative, leaving us with little answers (apparently, a false negative can frequently occur, and the only way to know for sure is through an intentestinal biopsy). But my tenacious wife decided to try a gluten-free diet for a few weeks, just to see if it made any difference. We changed his diet--already limited by egg and dairy allergies--and waited.

Only a few weeks later, we have a vibrantly growing little boy. His energy has returned, he never complains of stomach aches, the distended stomach has disappeared, and he eats second (and third!) helpings at dinner. Whether or not he is officially diagnosed with celiac disease, the change in his diet has changed his whole demeanor and growth.

The thing is, he loves wheat. Crackers, sandwiches, bagels, cereal--removing gluten from his life was not an easy task. It required discipline and intentionality for our entire family. But the change has made him feel so much better, so much more alive. It reminds me of my own dietary restrictions due to allergies. I've had a peanut and legume allergy since I was a child, but only a few years ago I was diagnosed with an extensive list of new allergies that had suddenly appeared--allergies to nuts, seeds, even foods like carrots and celery. Yes, celery. It's about the equivalent of a water allergy. I had to dramatically change my diet to the point where I never eat fast food and can only rarely eat out, nearly all my meals are homemade from scratch, and I eat very simple (read: boring) meals. It required discipline and intentionality too, but the change has made all the difference.

What about my spiritual life? I imagine there are activities, habits, and even relationships that are part of my routine intake, but are actually doing more harm than good. The amount of time I'm on a phone or the Internet. The relationship with a constantly draining person. The knee-jerk reaction of insecurity or anger when criticism arises. The lack of time to read good books, pray in silence, or be alone with the Lord due to an overly busy schedule of doing good things for the Lord. There are all sorts of things I frequently indulge in, yet typically lead away from the abundant life Jesus offers.

What am I consuming that may seem to be substantial, but is causing spiritual malnourishment? Like gluten for my son or celery for me, there may be some facets of life that *appear* to be healthy and normal, but are actually slowly causing lethargy and weakness in my relationship with Jesus, spiritual "allergies" that are breaking down health in my system. Seeking spiritual health requires discipline and intentionality, identifying the unhealthy practices and relationships, and replacing them with a simple, life-giving diet of spiritual disciplines and gracious community.

Copeland eating at Menchie's, the closest local fro-yo.
"The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4). Fro-yo is pretty good, too. But a steady diet of listening for God's voice will lead to a more whole, full life.

What needs to change in your own diet? What habits, situations, or relationships do you need to remove  from your life in order to seek health?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Movie Review: Noah

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” 

But Noah found favor with the Lord.

The book is nearly always better than the movie, and Darren Aronofsky's fantastic Noah is no exception. But this doesn't mean the movie isn't a worthy work of artistic merit on its own. A dream project for the filmmaker, Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnian-like fantasy story, a Shakespearian family drama, and a Biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. More than anything, Noah raises deep spiritual questions, and invites discerning viewers into discussion and exploration of moral themes and paradoxes.

These paradoxes include God's justice and mercy, God's presence and transcendence, and humanity's beauty and depravity. Noah embraces the tension, mystery, and complexity of these realities. This is not your Sunday-school Noah, with flannel-graph happy animals gathered on a boat beneath a rainbow. Grim and gritty, Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a tortured soul, a man striving to remain faithful to the Creator and care for his family, while also embracing the difficult task of being a key figure in the destruction of humanity. In the midst of the tragic cosmic drama involving the flood over the earth, there is also the intimate familial drama in Noah's own kin. Noah's wife and sons--particularly Ham (Logan Lerman)--struggle with their father's mission to create the ark and participate in God's act of judgment, and the family conflicts arise due to Noah's decisions.

Noah asks difficult questions unspoken in the biblical narrative: What would Noah's family have thought about his decision to build an ark? What about leaving humanity behind? What were the interactions like between Noah and the rest of wicked humanity? How did the animals get on the ark and stay there? Did Noah ever doubt his mission? Did he experience survivor's guilt? How did Noah and his family actually go about building the ark? What about the Genesis 9 account, where Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk--why include that story in Scripture? Do other biblical characters, like Tubal-Cain, Lamech, or Methuselah, play a role? Who or what were the Nephilim? Noah addresses many of these questions with fantastic imagination and scope, painting an image of an epic Middle Earth-like world of cinematic beauty and darkness. While many are annoyed that the filmmakers made a midrashic interpretation of the biblical narrative of Noah, looking at Jewish commentaries as source material, I found little, if anything, in Noah contrary to the truths found in Scripture. The story of Noah covers only four chapters in Genesis; Noah literally doesn't utter a word in the biblical story until Genesis 9, where he calls a curse and blessing on his sons. It's a story ripe for adaptation and expansion through the medium of film. While the third act of Noah addresses themes more akin to the Abrahamic narrative, the final message of God's justice and mercy rings true, for Christian and non-Christian viewers alike.

Despite its gritty violence--and it is quite violent, so squeamish viewers beware--Noah has wonderfully affecting moments, particularly with Noah's grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and Noah's adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson). While Ila isn't found in the biblical narrative, her interactions with Noah in the film are particularly profound, where the viewer is reminded of the beauty of mercy when it is offered freely to another. I wept during a conversation between Ila and Methuselah, where he reminds her that she is a gift from God and not a burden. Would that every young woman who doubted her value and beauty heard those words: you are a gift! Noah's wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connolly, who again finds herself as the spouse of an obsessive vision-seeing man portrayed by Russell Crowe), is a strong character next to Noah, offering him support and comfort from the weight of his task, while also pushing back against him in the third act, where the film takes an increasingly dark turn through Noah's decisions.

Noah is described as a righteous man in the Bible, but does this righteousness mean Noah is sinless? Of course not. He is a good man, a faithful man, but he is also a sinful man. Noah confronts this in a scene where Noah looks at the violence and depravity of the human race doomed for destruction, and realizes he is one of them. As the ark passes through the waters and the screams of humanity hit the ears of those on board, the weight of God's justice is tangible. We have all sinned and fallen short. It's only by grace that we are saved, and Noah offers a beautiful vision of grace as the remnants of creation experience salvation through the ark. In a culture of secular humanism, where science and atheism put the spiritual realm on trial, and the human heart's intentions and motives are always deemed as "good," Noah has the courage to reveal both the depths of human depravity and the beautiful spiritual existence of a merciful God.

Is God in Noah? Absolutely. Some disagree, as He is only referred to as "the Creator" throughout the film. Yet is this title inaccurate or false? Certainly not. God is Creator, the Author of all creation, and His glory fills the whole earth. Does God speak in Noah? Some are up in arms about the apparent silence of God as characters cry out to the sky for the Creator and get no response, as if God is distant, aloof, or non-existent. But what do these viewers expect--an audible voice from the sky? Have they ever experienced an audible heavenly voice during their personal times of prayer? I certainly haven't. I, too, have screamed and cried out to the heavens in hopes of an unambiguous answer to my prayers. God's response is never quite what I expect, and it's never been an audible voice from the clouds in my experience. God speaks in stirrings, murmurs, ponderings, the stillness and quiet. I recognize that it would be much easier and more comfortable, both for the film and for our present reality, if God's voice were clearly audible every time. But it isn't. We wrestle, we listen, we wonder if we're hearing God correctly, and we try to remain faithful and obedient, even when His voice isn't perfectly clear. We go back to what we know He has said--we turn to Scripture and listen for His heart in the stories and commands. Noah does the same; he repeatedly refers to the Creator's commission to fill the earth and care for it, be fruitful and multiply, to reflect His image and glory throughout the earth. God's grace ultimately shines through, piercing through the cloudy sky with a brilliant radiance.

Some might claim that Noah is a work of environmentalist propaganda by an atheist director with an agenda to make money off of ignorant Christians flocking to a "biblical" film. Yes, the film does have an environmentalist message. So does the Bible. In the Bible, God is the good Creator who made a good creation, and invites humanity to be stewards of that goodness. The whole earth was, and is, full of God's glory, the same glory that clothed Adam and Eve and allowed them to be naked and unashamed in Eden (Sidenote: Noah is the only Bible-based story I've ever seen that takes this clothed-by-God's-glory concept literally by making Adam and Eve glow, a detail I found significant and beautiful. When the glory was lost in the Fall, so was the light that covered their nakedness.) Our sin disrupted our vocational calling, cursing the ground beneath us and our souls within us. The book of Romans says that creation groans because of our sin, and longs for the day when all will be fully redeemed in Christ. Until then, we have the same Adamic and Noahic vocation--to be good stewards of the creation God has given us, to care and not abuse, to love and not neglect. Regarding the director's faith, Darren Aronofsky may not be an evangelical Christian, but I don't believe he's a radical atheist. In many interviews surrounding Noah, he shares about his personal wrestling with the concept of God, particularly from a Jewish tradition, and comes across as thoughtful and respectful in those wrestlings, even making this claim about the Bible regarding Noah:
"...we treated Genesis as the word of God, as complete truth. We were trying to bring that story to life so we didn’t want to contradict anything. We wanted to represent everything that was there and let it inspire us to tell a dramatic story with the themes and the ideas that are in there."
This adaptation of God's word brings about another question--what makes a story true? Is it the adherence to the literal words of Scripture, using the biblical text as a sort of script? Some folks in Christian circles are upset about the opening of Noah, where the words, "In the beginning, there was nothing," are the introductory words on the screen. That's not what Genesis 1:1 says! they exclaim. They changed the verse to take God out of the statement! Yet the exact same words are the opening lines to the Creation account in the wonderful children's book, The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones. I don't recall such a strong reaction for Lloyd-Jones' adaptation of Scripture. Is The Jesus Storybook Bible true? What about Son of God or God's Not Dead, two other recent films filled with Christian themes? What is true here? is a valid question to ask of our beloved stories. If God is the source of all truth, then anything and everything we encounter to be real and true finds its roots in God. I would contend that Noah is full of spiritual truth for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The themes of mercy and justice are prevalent, as are realities of a spiritual realm and a divine Creator. Perhaps truth in this case goes beyond historical accuracy or literal adherence to the exact phrasing in Scripture. This isn't to say that truth is relative or only experiential or entirely language-based. It's only to say that truth cannot be limited to the words of a page, as Truth is ultimately embodied in a person, Jesus Christ. We need to read the Bible more literarily than literally, and I hope that a film like Noah inspires people to explore the redemptive story of Scripture with renewed vision and passion. If the film motivates someone to read their Bible, I'd consider that a favorable outcome.

For any movie that has Christian themes or a Bible-based story, followers of Jesus have a unique opportunity to bear thoughtful witness to the God we worship. The key word here is thoughtful. So often our reactions to such films are knee-jerk and excitable--we either buy out the theatre and fashion whole sermon series in absolute praise of a film, or we boycott and decry it with religious zeal, pointing out how "unbiblical" it actually is. I'm particularly speaking about my own tribe of evangelicalism and our tendency to mindlessly consume or mindless reject particular works of art. This is a regrettable habit, but the real tragedy comes when we not only reject the work art, we also reject the people whose opinions differ from our own. To navigate the grey areas of our world with discernment, thoughtfulness, and tolerance--yes, tolerance!--from a posture of humility and love will be an incredible witness to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. In a culture defined by division and partisanship due to humanity's obsession with self-proclaimed influence and voicing personal opinions as facts, we can stand out as beacons of gracious moderation while holding fast to our values and humbly pointing people to truth. In our conversations about Noah, both in the physical and the online realms, let us strive as evangelicals to be known as thoughtful and gracious, not reactionary or ill-informed.

In the end, Noah isn't a perfect film, but it's certainly a fantastic film, in both senses of the word--extraordinarily good and imaginative and fanciful. For those who are hesitant about Noah--particularly those who claim it isn't "biblical" enough--I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. Noah reminds us that we are broken and beautiful, depraved and good, bearing the weight of our sin and the image of God in our souls. It calls us back to Eden, recognizing that we cannot create or enter paradise on our own--we need a Savior who looks upon us with favor, one who will carry us through the waters out of death and into life.

Links on Noah:
-My personal favourite review of Noah, from Brett McCracken at Converge, who discusses Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon, and Gerhard von Rad in his review.

-Alissa Wilkinson at Christianity Today offers her man reasons why you should see Noah as a thoughtful work of art.

-Stephen Greydanus gives an extensive commentary in his review at the National Catholic Register.

-The strongest and most thoughtful negative review of Noah I've read, from Kenneth Morefield at his blog.

-Peter T. Chattaway has written the most in-depth and comprehensive write-ups on Noah from the very beginning, literally years before the film was ever made. His first and second impressions of the film, articles on why Noah isn't Gnostican examination of the snakeskin imagery, and an interview with Aronofsky and Ari Handel.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Reflections on Portland 2014

The Portland 2014 team
Last week, a team of 21 people from my church's high school ministry embarked on a five-day service trip to Portland, Oregon, my favourite city in the United States. I absolutely love service and missions trips--students get outside of their everyday lives and learn how to work as a team, do uncomfortable and awkward tasks, have spiritual conversations with people, and put their faith into action. God always does incredible things in students' hearts during these experiences, and, when served with intentionality, the ministries we partner with are also blessed by the students' service.

On our first full day in Portland, we parked at Lloyd Center and took the MAX to downtown, where we set the students loose to wander for a few hours and make at least ten observations about the city. After a trip to Voodoo Donuts and Powell's City of Books, we went back for a time of debrief and prayer. It was awesome to see students opening their eyes, ears, and hearts to the city, noticing cultural differences between Canada and the US in ways they hadn't before, and growing in their love for new places and people.
Our observations about Portland
On Wednesday, we spent the entire day serving with Union Gospel Mission, both at their downtown ministry and their thrift store in Tigard. Our students were thrown into service, handing out food, coffee, and clothing to the homeless guests. After initial fear and intimidation, the students began to slowly engage in conversations with the guests, learning names, listening to stories, and even celebrating one guy's birthday (he was 47 that day). We closed the day with a Lenten dinner at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, our gracious hosts, and attended an evening service. Our students learned a lot about Lutheran practices and liturgy, and the experience expanded our horizons regarding the body of Christ--these Mennonite Brethren students were getting a taste of how others in the kingdom do church.

On Thursday, we partnered with Shepherd's Door, a ministry of Portland Rescue Mission to mothers caught in a life of addiction and poverty. Our students did loads of gardening and yard work in the women's community garden, working so quickly that the SD staff didn't have enough for us to do. After getting showers at my former stomping grounds, Hinson Church, and exploring the weirdness of SE Hawthorne Blvd, we closed our evening by participating in Night Strike. A small group from our team went out on a prayer walk through the city while the rest were hosts under the Burnside Bridge, having conversations with the homeless guests and praying for those around us. What began as an uncomfortable and difficult experience turned into a transformative event for many of our students. Prayers were answered in the moment; deep conversations happened in unexpected ways; students overcame their fears in the name of Jesus.
At Night Strike, under the Burnside Bridge
A significant highlight for me was seeing a diverse team of students grow in their love for one another. Many of the students didn't even know each other's names before the trip. By the end, they were laughing and serving together, playing card games and singing along to the "Frozen" soundtrack on the drive home to BC. Many quieter students broke out of their shells, and there weren't any cliques or huge conflicts during the week. It was a week defined by friendship--these students are now genuine friends, having experienced something beautiful together in the uniting love of Jesus.

During a time of reflection and debrief at the end of the trip, I wrote the following in my journal: "Portland was a trip where I saw God's uniting and gracious love at work. Where a team of students became the body of Christ through serving others and building each other up, and where our eyes were opened to bigger visions of who God is and how He is at work in the world around us. God's love is both greater and more intimate than before."

Thanks to our church family for your prayers, to the parents of students for the willingness to send your teens on a service trip, and to Jesus, whose love is gracious and patient and redemptive.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ministry Lessons From My VW Beetle

For the past year, my primary form of transportation has been my 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. I bought Jim the Bug (named after the original owner) from a beloved friend in Washington and drove it 300 miles north to BC, where he has been a faithful companion.

Driving Jim has been like living in a parable. I've learned so many life and ministry lessons from sitting in the busted driver seat and revving the cold engine, shifting the stiff gears and wiping down the fogged-up windows on chilly mornings.

Here are 4 lessons I've learned about ministry from my VW Beetle:

Prayer. Every time I get into Jim, I say a prayer: "God, may this engine start." Every time I get on the highway and the car starts to shake around 50 mph, I say a prayer: "God, protect me--don't let this Beetle crash." Every time the car idles at a light and the RPMs suddenly drop and the engine shutters, I say a prayer: "God, get me and this Beetle home safely." Because there really isn't much of a stereo in the Beetle (though that has recently changed, thanks to my friend Josh, who installed a CD player and speakers he found from another Super Beetle in a junkyard), I spend my commute in silent prayer, a quiet commune with the Lord. Driving the Beetle has strengthened my prayer life. Prayer is absolutely essential for life and ministry, yet so often becomes an afterthought in the busyness of serving the Lord. Driving Jim reminds me to pray first, before I do anything else.

Simplicity. There are no bells and whistles with the Beetle. The engine is simple and straightforward, and even those who aren't mechanically inclined (like me) can do routine repairs. The interior has everything one needs--seats, seatbelts, three pedals, steering wheel, manual windows and locks, etc. Our family's other car has a huge sun/moon roof, heated seats, air conditioning, an mp3 plugin, and power everything. The Beetle doesn't need all that. It's simple and clear, which is uniquely attractive. Simplicity in life and ministry are also attractive--rather than having an overly cluttered and programmed schedule filled with a wide variety of spiritual bells and whistles, a ministry of simplicity and clarity is refreshing in a congested world. I'm learning I need to cut out the ministry programs and endeavours that aren't essential to the mission.

Endurance. My Beetle is 40 years old, yet it's still going strong. Even though he's got plenty of rust, the seats and interior need changing, and the engine needs continual maintenance, Jim the Bug certainly hasn't gone out of style or given up his last breath. In whatever weather, in the craziest of circumstances, the Beetle just. Keeps. Going. The Beetle endures. I've heard so many Bug stories from people about how their car broke down--the driver's door fell off, the windshield wipers froze, the gas pedal stopped working, the wiring was fried--yet they still managed to drive it home! Due to its simplicity and classic style, the Beetle is sustainable. I want to have the discipline of endurance in my life and ministry--I want to face difficulty and obstacles with a confidence that they can be overcome, that God is faithful to the end, and that the best is still yet to come. I want to live a sustainable life.

Maintenance. The reason the Beetle can endure is due to routine maintenance. A Beetle left to itself for long enough will ultimately fall apart. It needs oil changes, new filters and spark plugs, and a constant supply of fuses, lightbulbs, and various mechanical necessities packed into the glove compartment. My car is filled with manuals and tools meant to make a repair on the run. I'm continually opening up the engine compartment and looking inside, checking belts and bolts and wires. It's easier and cheaper to do small ongoing repairs that come with maintenance rather the costly repairs that come with an engine failure and breakdown. The same goes for life and ministry: regular evaluation, maintenance, and accountability will keep me from burnout and moral failure. I need to be making constant repairs and adjustments in order to keep my gauges full and my life running on all cylinders.

I'm grateful for my Beetle, not only for getting me from point A to point B, but for the instruction it gives me as we travel through life together.

Which Beetle lesson resonates with you the most? Got a Beetle story? Share it in the comments!