Early Onset Atheism

 

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“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Matthew 18:6

For years, we’ve been offering a semester-long confirmation class for all the 7th and 8th graders on our rolls.  We would bring in lots of students whose parents want their kids to get confirmed.  We’d meet once a week for several weeks, and talk about the basics, and then finish the class with a retreat and a special service.

And then… they’d disappear. We’d never see many of those kids again.  Or their parents!  It was as if confirmation class was like driver’s ed, or a get-your-Christianity-card training course.  Pick up your certificate and you’re good to go.

What a drag.  Another class of (literally) half-baked Christians, let loose on the world.

This week I read a study, found at psypost.org, about young Christians who become atheists.  In a survey of over 5,000 atheists, the ones who rejected Christianity earlier in life were the ones who grew up in families who “talked the talk” but didn’t “walk the walk”.

The study uses the term “CREDs” — or “CRedibility Enhancing Displays” to describe a parent’s actions, attitudes, and behaviors that reflect an authentic Christian way of life.  So, this study is suggesting that Christian parents who don’t have much CRED (i.e. they don’t act or talk in particularly Christian ways) may actually be pushing their children right out of the faith.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  If the person I am looking most up to is doing very little to emulate this Jesus guy, then one of the primary opportunities to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God is never offered.

In other words:  There’s a direct connection between weak Christianity and early onset Atheism.  That’s a scary notion, isn’t?  The idea that some of us pew warmers have actually pushed our kids away because of our own lukewarm faith.

We’ve noticed this negative effect happening not just in parents, but in our church as a whole.  Could our church be pushing young people away from…church? What can the church do to increase our CRED?

Here’s a couple things we’ve done related to Confirmation:

Confirmation class for youth is now 2 years long, taught by the Youth Director, the Senior Pastor, and the ADCO chair.  The increased time requires greater commitment,  but the work is more of an exploration–fueled by the very deep faith questions the youth ask. The goal is to help them become mature Christians.

Parents are encouraged to participate along with mentors, especially on church visits that show our youth the variety of religious experience. Introducing a number of faith options reminds youth they have choice, which can paradoxically help them make a commitment.

Confirmation Class for adults.  We’ve offered a special class for adults who may have forgotten, or never learned, about God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit, Sin, Salvation, and on and on.  It was amazing to hear them ask the same questions our youth have asked.  Yes, some of them drifted away after the class.  But others have redoubled their commitment to the faith, and increased their CRED.

Efforts like this are a way for a church to help reduce Early Onset Atheism.  Even better is to help every adult (every parent) develop a rock solid faith, and learn to use it.  We still struggle to do this well, but small groups, discipleship processes, compelling preaching, and mission opportunities can make it happen.

There’s not a person in the congregation that doesn’t need to confirm their faith on a regular basis.  That’s how we remember what we believe, and commit to put it into action.  The more we can remember to walk the walk,

the sooner we give sufferers of Early Onset Atheism,

a cure they can believe in.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Runaway Empathy at the Village Inn.

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Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  –Romans 12:15

There’s a guy two tables over.  He’s eating by himself.

His wife died last year, and this is the one fun thing he does each week.  He goes out to Village Inn on Friday nights, and orders the catfish dinner.  And as he eats each bite he tries to be happy.  He jokes with the waitress, but I can tell it’s an act.

This lonely man, by the way, is a figment of my imagination.

I mean, yes, there’s a guy eating dinner over there, but I can’t tell from here if he’s happy or sad.  I can’t tell if he got the fish or a stack of pancakes.

I can’t tell squat!  But that doesn’t stop me from soaking up all kinds of sad vibes that probably don’t even exist.

It’s a little game I play called “runaway empathy”.  Ever play it?  It’s where you turn your receptors on soo high that you feel the feelings of everyone around you. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes, like tonight, I’m mildly out of control.

I mean, I really am quite empathetic.  It’s one of my gifts.  I couldn’t tell you what color shoes you’re wearing, but I bet 8 times out of 10 I could guess how you’re feeling today.

What can I say? Some people are good at noticing details–I can read auras.

There are plenty of folks who are like this.  Maybe you.  Somehow in our development we just learned to hone that skill.  Or maybe we were born to be sensitive like that.

I don’t really know where it comes from, but as a pastor, it’s a skill I can use.  Teaching a group, counseling a troubled soul, running a staff—empathy serves me well, except when I overuse it at Village Inn.  Or take people’s emotions too personally.  Or even feel someone else’s feelings instead of my own.  These are things I have to watch out for all the time.

This is one of those standard examples of having a gift from God, and then using it poorly.  Can you relate?

Maybe you command air-tight reason, usually to your benefit–but when it comes time to be intimate with a loved one, you just can’t shut your brain off.  Runaway logic.

Maybe you’ve got the quickest, sharpest tongue, which is good for a lot of laughs, but when it’s time to be serious, you’re just plain tone deaf. Runaway sarcasm.

Maybe you’re an expert at free-living, at the detriment of order.   Runaway chaos.

It’s actually a very good and healthy thing to emphasize your strengths.  They will take you far in life.  But stress, anxiety, negligence and arrogance can take you past your natural limits, into something quite unhealthy.

Whatever runaway gifts you have to keep ahold of, remember that regaining your focus on God will quickly reframe things.  Remember, Jesus used his gifts carefully and responsibly, and he made time daily for recharging.

My dinner at Village Inn was a wake up call to dial it back, and that was good for me.

I took a deep breath, and watched the guy as he left…

It looked like he was smiling.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Meghan Markle Rocks Denim Dress

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They say to write what you know.

That is not what I am doing today.  Today, I am writing about the Duchess of Sussex, otherwise known as Meghan Markle.

Why? Because, as I’ve been surfing around the Interlands this week, I keep seeing little clickbait articles about her everywhere.  She is everywhere. 

Somebody out there clearly has an obsession with this woman, and all I seem to know is…didn’t she get married or something?

Yes, she did.  A little time on Wikipedia makes me a sort-of expert.  Here’s what I learned:

  • She was born in 1981.
  • She was a TV actress, best known as Rachel Zane on the law drama “Suits”.
  • She’s been divorced.
  • She married Prince Harry, the Grandson of Queen Elizabeth the II.
  • As far as I can tell, ever since the marriage, the press seems compelled to photograph every item of clothing she wears (like the People headline above), every tiny gesture that is not “proper” enough, and every time her and Harry make eye contact with each other.

It’s been so many months since the wedding, (May ’18) and still people are swooning about her.  I finally think I understand why:  She’s a living fairy tale.  Like Princess Diana a generation ago.  She’s an everyday person plucked out of the crowd to be part of the royal family.  It’s the kind of thing some folks just drool over.

To you Marklers (or Meghaholics?) please know that I’m not condemning you.  A fascination with the Duchess seems harmless enough.  But just the same, keep this in mind:

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness;
–1 Timothy 4:7

It is possible, the writer of Timothy reminds us, to get tangled up in fairy tales, to the point that we lose track of the very real story we’re called to live. Daydreaming about marrying your prince could, if not checked, leave you drifting in fantasy land.

The same holds true for rabid sports fans, video game junkies, breaking news fanatics, Netflix bingers and more.  What fairy tales or other forms of escapism capture too much of your attention?

The Hebrew word for sin translates as “Missing the Mark”.  When the focus of our hopes, dreams, and discipleship is something other than God, we make the wrong things the bullseye in our lives.  That is sinful behavior, and can cause big problems in our lives!

Most of us have our things we geek out on, and I think that’s okay.  It’s part of how we have fun, and can even present itself as a hobby.  We just have to make sure we keep our priorities straight.

For instance, if you read the title of today’s devotion and instantly knew that this was the dress Meghan wore to Harry’s polo match a couple weeks ago, you may need to tear yourself away from the tabloids for a while.

After all, you want to avoid Missing the Mark,

even if it means Missing the Markle.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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A Laity Bill of Rights

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Let’s stop right here, before I get started.

I’m not a member of the laity, and I’m pretty sure a laity bill of rights should be written by laity.  But, at the risk of “clergy-splaining”, I want to throw a few things out there for your consideration, laity.  Freedoms and protections I believe should be inalienable in The Church.  Use what you want, and throw the rest away.

  1.  The right to think.   Just because you have a dazzling pastor or a Harvard trained Sunday School teacher doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your brain at church.  Some churches tend to tell you what you should believe.  I don’t go there.  I see the church, and it’s leaders, as teaching you HOW to believe–how to engage in disciplined, faithful inquiry.  Will your pastor make a strong case for the quadrilateral or prevenient grace?  Absolutely.  But how (or if) you integrate it into your walk of faith?  That should be your job.
  2. The right to bare arms.  Heehee.  Simply put,  I believe a church that puts a dress code over and above hospitality is already a dead church.  That said, different churches have different cultures.  If you’re wearing a tuxedo and everyone around you is in cutoffs, you may have a different concept of reverence.  There may be a church culture that fits you better.
  3. The right to accountability.  Here’s what I mean:  Lots of older churches (and their leaders) have allowed accountability to sort of drift away.  Being a member of a church means…attending occasionally?  Putting a few bucks in the plate once a year?  I find myself guilty of letting my congregations down in this way.  Laity who sign on for the adventure of discipleship deserve to encounter discipline along the way.  Discipline shapes the life of a church, in terms of expectations, opportunities, and structure.  If you’re going to make a commitment to a church, that commitment should challenge you, engage you, and work to form you into the disciple you’ve committed to be.
  4. The right to disagree.  You believe in creation, but your pastor teaches that it’s just a metaphor.  Do you have to change your beliefs? (Or change your church?)  No.  It’s okay to disagree.  Your Sunday School teacher tells you animals don’t have souls, but your dog Pearl (r.i.p.) was the most loving creature you ever met.  Do you have to sully her good name because your teacher said so?  No!  This may be obvious, but I think there are laity who forget they have the right to disagree.  It’s even possible to disagree without painful conflict or separation.  Great conversations can emerge from seeing things differently.  Just the same, if you find your pastor on the opposite side of the fence every Sunday, you also have the right to rethink if this church is truly feeding you.
  5. The right to be safe.  Churches are those rare buildings that actually house a “sanctuary”–a place of refuge and safety.  That could be said of the whole church property.  That’s the fervent goal, anyway.  There are times, it pains to say, when that right is violated.  You also have the right not to be bullied for your belief or any other reason.  You have the right to be safe at any age and in any situation.  These are rights we strive so hard to assure.  But sometimes, through negligence or evil, this right can be painfully violated.  God forbid, but were something like this to ever happen…
  6. You have the right to remain silent.  But I hope you won’t.  Instances of abuse are traumatizing, and we see one example after another of people who have waited decades to speak up in the face of that painful occurrence.  If you ever experience something that makes you uncomfortable or threatened or exposed, I truly hope you’ll tell somebody that you trust.  This is bad stuff, and it can threaten the rights of everybody in the church.  And if you are that trusted person somebody confides in, you have the right–no, RESPONSIBILITY to do right by them.  Listen to them.  Believe them.  Reach out to others who can help.

This is such a short list.  Maybe some laity out there will offer their own lists of rights.  I pledge, as a clergy, to listen and respect every word.Maybe I should be focusing on a bill of rights for pastors.

Hmm. Here’s a start:

1. We the clergy have the right to … pretty much all of the above, too.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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