Same Target, Different Aim

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of high school students yesterday and after taking the stage, I began with a simple series of questions.  I felt as though the Lord had laid them on my heart to ask myself, then those students.  And now I’m asking you the same questions (addressing Christians):

Have you been introduced to Jesus or just to church and church activities?

Are you in love with Jesus or are you in love with Jesus-y kinds of things?

Do you love Jesus or do you love singing worship songs about Him?

Is it Jesus that has made the difference in your life, or just your Christian friends?

I believe that Christians can be guilty of confusing these things.  We use Jesus and Jesus-ish activities interchangeably.  And while each of the things listed above have their place in the Christian’s life, we can receive a fair warning from the words spoken to the church at Ephesus in Revelation chapter 2:

2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.’

I’ve been to a firing range a few times.  I’m not a great shot, but I can surely hit a paper target (not necessarily the bulls eye every time, but the paper target for sure).  I’ve stood in that stall, ear protection on, with a handgun raised toward the target and squeezed the trigger.  BANG.  Missed.  A little to the left.  Squeeze again.  BANG. A little more to the left.  I wouldn’t retrieve the paper target, take it back to the front counter and complain that the target isn’t working.  I wouldn’t even complain that my gun isn’t aiming correctly.  I WOULD adjust MY aim.  I squeeze another round.  BANG.  Bullseye.

I periodically hear statistics of Christian young people graduating high school, heading off to college, and in short order abandoning their faith in Christ.  Some wild-haired philosophy professor tells them they’ve been lied to, to forget everything they’ve been taught since its all illusory, then throws some questions at them, introduces doubt mixed in with thoughts their young minds haven’t thought before, and wham-bam: “I’m an atheist now.”

Really?!?  We’re losing young people to “intellectuals” at some university who say “it isn’t so”, which means it isn’t so?  Not at all.  We’re losing those young people because we’re not teaching them what to aim at.  We’re erroneously equating activity with affection, busyness with fruitfulness, and niceness with Christ-likeness.  I’m not saying attendance to worship services isn’t important, or that worship music isn’t helpful in our spiritual walk, or that being nice is overrated.  I’m not an idiot.  I AM saying that we need to remember where the bulls eye is or better yet: WHO the bulls eye is.

I refuse to be a pastor who doesn’t want to rock the boat by not asking the piercing questions like the ones listed above.  I believe that each of those questions that were asked yesterday to those students will stick with many of them; introducing them to a wrestle with God and their own hearts that will ultimately bring them to the next step in their faith journey with Jesus.  That they wouldn’t consider themselves “Christians” or “disciples” simply because they hang around with like-minded “Christian” friends, or that they are followers of Jesus because they’re followers of Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, or David Crowder, or that their salvation is secure because they show up somewhere and listen to someone talk from the Bible and about God for a little while.

That every student God allows my life the privilege of touching would find that when it all comes down, it really all comes down to their “first love” being Jesus Christ.

More please.

I love buffets.  The idea that I can pay one price and stay for the day is euphorically mind-boggling.  I was at a popular pizza buffet recently and said jokingly to the person across the table, “The pizza isn’t that great, but at least there’s a lot of it!”  My wife and I have made it our standing policy not to go to any restaurant that doesn’t give free refills on drinks.  (I’m looking at you, Cafe’ Catura!)  The portion sizes in most establishments are many times over the recommended size for the average human being.  My wife and I had our weekly lunch date at Chipotle yesterday and all around us were people struggling to unhinge their jaw in order to fit a burrito into their mouth.

In spite of all our downsizing in recent years, this American truth remains:  “More is more.”

When I was a little kid, I used to visit my Grandpop at his shoe store.  A special treat would be when he’d let me have a glass bottle Coke and sit in the stockroom on a tall stool at his workbench.  I remember a sign on the wall in that dimly lit stockroom that said, “Rule #1: The customer is always right.  Rule #2: If you think the customer is wrong, see rule #1.”  Yep, Grandpop prided himself on his customer service.  Not only did it make for a pleasant shopping experience for his patrons, but it also made for repeat customers; known as “retention”.

Here’s what I see: its awfully tempting for me as a pastor to look at those I love and serve as “customers”.  Its tempting to fall into the trap of asking questions like “How many are we running?” and “How many are we keeping?”  Let me be quick to say that I do believe those questions have their place in effective ministry, but all too often they can become THE indicator that we use to assess health more than anything else.

I recently got an email from a parent complaining about something in regards to the student ministry I help lead.  And I wouldn’t have minded it really at all if this was an involved family who was faithful to be in the flow of disciple-making, prayer, giving, and even activities of our local church.  They’re not.  In fact, they’ve been here once in the past six months.  And it was when I learned that statistic that my mind switched over to “customer care”.  I began to assess the situation in a completely unspiritual way.  I began to look at them as a dot on a spreadsheet rather than a precious, prized soul that Jesus died to redeem.  And that’s when I’m guilty of “customer care” rather than “soul care”.

As a Bible & youth ministry major in college, I was taught well how to get things done.  I was also taught how to make sure my own soul stays nourished so that I don’t “burn out”.  But as I recall, less emphasis was put on how to care for people as we all keep our eye on Kingdom work: loving the lost, feeding the hungry, attending to the sick, making disciples, equipping the saints, and things like that.  So what I’ve allowed to happen is that ministry often gets boiled down to “keep the customers happy.”

God, help me to drop that like the bad idea that it is.

A pastor’s desire to keep people engaged (a wonderful desire) can be so easily confused with and switched out for the desire to keep people (not-as-good a desire).  Let me pound this out, kind of shooting from the hip here.  If I as a pastor give more attention to keeping people than feeding people, than the emphasis becomes the dog-and-pony show of entertaining the crowd rather than the Biblically-mandated call to mobilize the troops to impact their world with their grace gun, locked and loaded.  Can what we do have a sense of fun, a sense of appeal, a sense of humor?  Absolutely!  And I’m a firm believer in the “whistle while you work” philosophy.  But when we focus more on the whistle than the work…well…maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when people complain because the ministry I help lead doesn’t make them happy.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised to get an email that basically tells me that the church I’m on staff at might not be a good church because the writer of the email was spiritually challenged instead of socially coddled.

I love ministry.  I love that God has called me to be a student ministry pastor.  I literally can’t imagine what else He would do with me if it weren’t this.  But I also love when God lets me clearly see the pitfalls of wasted effort and wrong paradigms.