Kids in Church

Over the next couple months we will look at what Scripture has to say about raising children in the faith. People outside the church often ask me about our kids’ ministry. I get the impression they assume that the best way for a child to grow up to know Jesus is through a vibrant children's ministry and fun youth group. But when we look at Scripture, God doesn’t tell  us to have these things. This doesn’t mean they can’t play a role, but they aren’t foundational. Instead God gives some of his clearest instructions in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NLT):

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Moses is telling the people what they need to do in order to ensure the generations after them continue to experience the blessings God has promised. He calls for wholehearted commitment to God and tells them how to pass that on to the next generation. Notice that Moses doesn’t say the children need to be enrolled in Sampson's Hunting Club or David’s Music School; on the contrary, the things we typically associate with kids’ ministry are absent. These things are not wrong, but God’s design for passing on our faith to the next generation is less about programs and more about authentic displays of God’s word in all of life. Notice the commands: “repeat them,” “talk about them,” “tie them,” “wear them,” “write them.” Now notice the locations and situations: home and on the road, going to bed and getting up, on your hands and foreheads, doorposts of house and gates. Moses is talking about creating an environment, an environment that encompasses the child’s whole life. The idea of sectioning off part of your life for God--this day or this hour--is foreign to God’s design. Moses is calling on people to live spiritual lives where every action is done for God’s glory. 

Christian faith is best passed on to the next generation through authentic Christian environments. Certain programs fit into that, but a program is not an environment. Programs end; they have boundaries. God calls Christian parents to something without boundaries. We are to raise our children in a climate where God is loved.

Let me illustrate this. For several months I lived with a family in Hawaii. About the time I showed up the family planted a banana tree in their front yard. A few months later the banana tree was producing bananas. For a guy who grew up in the high elevations of Colorado this was shocking. It took over ten years for my family to get our new apple tree to produce fruit. Hawaii, though, was an excellent environment for bananas. A good habitat fosters growth. A really good youth group can act like fertilizer, but a plant cannot survive on fertilizer alone! For lasting growth, it needs an entire environment with water, good soil, sun, the right temperature, and so much more. Likewise, the key for a good spiritual environment is authentic love for God; it’s like sunlight, water, rich soil, and a good climate all at once. 

Authentic love for God must undergird everything we do if we want to see the next generation grow up to love Christ. Everyone in the church has a role to play in this. Over the next several newsletters we will look at some of the ways in which we all can show our children this love for God through family activities, worship, children's programs and more. 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

This is adapted from the booklet “Helping our Kids Grow in Christ.”  It will be freely available in the coming weeks on the JVC website and resource wall. 

Christians and Immigration: Part 2

Back in March, we talked about sphere sovereignty and how it can help us think and talk about immigration. Then, we considered this issue within the sphere of the government. In this newsletter we are going to look at how we should think of immigration within the sphere of the church. 

To review, sphere sovereignty is the idea that God has created distinct spheres of authority within the world. Governments have a certain sphere of authority, while the church has another sphere of authority. When applying passages of Scripture we need to ensure we are not taking a passage that is written for one sphere--say, the church--, and applying it to another sphere, such as the government. A simple example is a Christian police officer who is both to use the “power of the sword” (Rom 13:4) to protect the citizens and to follow Jesus’ teachings to “turn the other cheek.” (Matt 5:39) The sphere the police officer is currently operating in (as an on-duty officer, or as a private citizen) would tell him which scriptural principle to apply to his situation. As I mentioned in the March newsletter, many misunderstandings about the response to immigration result from taking a single Bible passage and applying it to all spheres. This wouldn’t work for Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, and it doesn’t work for passages related to immigration.  

Churches, while they reside in particular nations, do not belong to those nations, but are embassies of God’s eternal kingdom. (John 18:36, Phil 3:12) God’s kingdom is made up of people from every nation, tribe, people and language. (Rev 7:9) In one sense, God’s kingdom is wholly made up of immigrants. In Romans 4, Paul tells us that we are not born into God’s household, but become part of God’s family through faith. In other words, we all had to go through an immigration process when we became Christians. And we now live as spiritual foreigners--refugees--, awaiting the day we make it to our new home. This should give all Christians compassion for refugees and immigrants.

The purpose of the Church is to make disciples from all nations. (Matt 28:19) Traditionally, this meant missionaries would go overseas, but now, with the ongoing refugee crises, the nations are coming to us. We now have opportunities to bring the gospel to all nations without even leaving our city.  In Acts 17:26-7, Paul tells us that God has ordained the boundaries and movements of all people throughout history. Thus the millions of refugees seeking a home is not a mishap, but part of God’s sovereign purpose. 

Many refugees come from places where it is difficult to send Christian missionaries, and now God is bringing these formerly isolated people to us. As a church we should welcome people from around the globe because of the opportunity to share the gospel with them. Are there risks in welcoming refugees? Yes, of course. It’s the government's job to figure out how to minimize these risks. But as Christians, when did we start thinking it wasn’t risky to be a Christian? When did we start thinking there wouldn’t be  a cost to following Christ? Can we claim to follow Jesus, who willingly suffered and died on a cross for his enemies, if we first seek safety and isolation from the very type of people that Jesus died for–those who wanted to kill him? 

The influx of refugees and immigrants should be exciting for God’s Church. Now the nations are coming to us! And what a message of hope the Gospel has to those who have no home. For at the heart of the Gospel is the story of a man named Jesus, who, not long after he was born, was taken by his parents as a refugee to Egypt. The Gospel offers the hope of a new beginning. Whether we live in the suburbs or the slums, the Gospel shows the best is yet to come. Because of Christ, we are all immigrants, walking by faith towards the true home Jesus has prepared for us in heaven.

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

We Are Just Getting Started

Last year, on Sunday, October 16th, we outlined a new vision for our church. This Easter Sunday, April 16th, marks exactly six months from that congregational meeting. It’s hard to believe it’s been six months! And yet these past few months have been so encouraging. So many people have helped out–I’ve counted at least thirty different people! They are excited about how good it all looks. After six years of flat or declining attendance our church has started to grow again. This is an exciting time for our church. 

Most of our renovations are done now. The building looks amazing. But the thing is, it won’t last. The beautiful new floor will get scratched and worn. The fresh paint will eventually look dated, and the carpet will fray. So why all the renovations? Because they are temporary things that help us share what is eternal–the Gospel. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul’s words are striking. He’s saying the central focus of his ministry is Jesus Christ and his death--more specifically, his crucifixion. We hear of Jesus’s death so often that we can almost become immune its power. But Paul says that the crucifixion is central to all of Scripture. Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion, helps us understand the power of the cross in a fresh way:  “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.” She goes on to say, “Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living; they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard.” 

It’s been a busy few months at our church. The renovations might be nearly done, but our work is just getting started. Why? Because all that work serves something greater, the proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified. That is the explosive news that transformed people in the first century. The message that the God who made everything was shamed, suffered, and died in one of the most humiliating ways known to man. And he did this because of his great love for us. Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus! We want all people to know this love. 

God is at work, using us to share his love. I’ve had many gospel conversations with visitors since we’ve become Jordan Valley Church. I spoke with a college student who visited our church and was overwhelmed by the welcome she received; now she wants to learn more about our church. I’ve been able to read the Bible with someone who responded, “I’ve never heard this before. This grace sounds too good to be true.” I’ve had a conversation with someone who said he’s not a Christian, but he’s interested in what’s happening here, and he keeps coming back. God is working in our church! We are just getting started, and by God’s grace the best is yet to come. 
 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Christians and Immigration: Part 1

How should we as Americans and Christians think about immigration? I realize I’m a little late to the party. Immigration was a hot topic a few weeks ago; it seems to have died down a bit now. But Presbyterians are always late to the party on things like this; at least I am. Or perhaps that’s why I’m Presbyterian?  

I wanted to write about this because so much of what Christians are saying about it seems to be marked more by political ideology than by biblical thinking. This concerns me. I’m not an expert on immigration, but, having lived in Iraq (one of seven countries named in the recent temporary immigration ban) for over a year, I do have a unique perspective on some of the issues. But I’m also a pastor; part of my role is that of “public theologian;” I ought to be helping people see how the Bible speaks to the issues of our day.

Sphere Sovereignty

When we read scripture we should ask what spheres of life (or authority) these passages fit into. Consider a police officer; his job is to serve and protect the people. This authority comes from God himself. (Rom 13:1-7) But say this police officer is also a Christian, and thus should follow Jesus’s command to not resist an evildoer, but turn the other cheek. (Matt 5:39) How does the police officer reconcile these two seemingly conflicting commands? Should he return fire at the bank robber who is shooting at him? This would make him a good police officer, but not a good Christian. Or should he stand down and offer his other cheek as a target to the robber? This would make him a good Christian, but not a good police officer.

The idea of sphere sovereignty is helpful here. In his role (sphere) as a police officer, he has a duty to protect others, using force if necessary. However, in his personal life, it would be wrong for him to use that authority by pulling out his service pistol to confront a neighbor whose dog poops on his lawn. Here, in the personal sphere, Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek would take precedence.

This same principle applies in our talk about immigration. A government that fails to protect its people is failing in one of its basic mandates. But there is also the sphere of a Christian's personal life where we all should be willing to lay down our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Much of the disagreement I’ve seen among Christians happens because people take scriptures meant for one sphere of authority and try to apply them to another sphere. But that’s the same mistake as the police officer saying he won’t return fire on duty because he needs to turn the other cheek. In the immigration debate, someone might cite a scripture passage regarding the care of immigrants, yet ignore passages regarding the government's priority to protect its people. Understanding the different spheres of sovereignty helps us to both welcome immigrants and be committed to keeping our country safe.

Total Depravity

One of the most ignored (and helpful) teachings of Scripture when it comes to immigration is the doctrine of total depravity. This doctrine teaches that, while humans are not as bad as they could be, every part of humanity is affected by sin. (Jer 17:9; Titus 1:15; Rom 3:10-19)

Some who would advocate for more open borders forget that people are totally depraved. I get the sense that some politicians believe that, if they could just sit in a room and talk with certain extremists, they would win them to their side and the American way. Unfortunately, this belief ignores that people are totally depraved. Some have been so twisted by sin that they take pleasure in the brutal killing of others.

But others who advocate for much stricter policies seem to forget that we are all totally depraved. The threat of violence is not just “outside the gates” but also within. The sin that leads terrorists to commit horrible acts of violence is the same sin that is within us. This should give us a healthy dose of humility. When we forget total depravity, it can lead to pride, to thinking we are somehow better than others. But we forget that we only have what we have by the grace of God. Because of this we should have compassion for all people.

Christ Is the True King

As Christians who are citizens of the United States we cannot forget that God is our true protector. This keeps us from unhealthy paranoia regarding acts of terrorism. It even allows us to accept some risk in accepting refugees, if there are good reasons to accept them. Trusting in an earthly king more than in God is what often got Israel into trouble. Israel often wanted a king who would build a strong army, economy and alliances; yet, ironically, the more Israel sought those things, the more they tended to lose them. Had God’s people worried less about military and political might and had instead sought God first, they would have been safer.

Forgetting All People Are Made in the Image of God

In Genesis 1:26-27, we learn that God created all people in his image. No higher honor can be given than to be made in the image of the God who made all things! This means we must reject “us versus them” thinking. We must reject ostracising certain groups of people because of a few bad apples. Even in the worst people, God’s image remains. We must show a respect for every human life, never stooping to the same lows that those who wish us harm would use.

One of the things that struck me while deployed in Iraq was how much I had in common with most of the Iraqi citizens. They were all Muslim, and yet they were a lot like me. They had the same desires, worries and struggles that I did. The vast majority of Iraqis I met didn’t hate us; many were incredibly hospitable. Even those who would aid Al Qaeda by planting a roadside bomb were not usually religious extremists. The economy was bad in Iraq, and no one had money; so Al Qaeda started to pay good money to people to plant roadside bombs. This was the only work available. To “sweeten” the deal Al Qaeda operatives would often threaten to kill his wife and kids if a citizen refused. If you were in that same situation can you be sure you wouldn’t have made the same choice many of the Iraqis did? Plant the bomb, and your family gets to live. The Americans at least had body armor, which is much more protection than your children have if Al Qaeda comes for them. The greatest casualties of Islamic Extremism in Iraq were Muslims themselves.

When I get to know people who are different than me I soon learn we actually aren't that different. Because we are all made in the image of God, we have many similarities. And because we are made in the image of God, we all have dignity.

We Need to Respect Our Leaders

Romans 13:1 gives us some of the clearest guidance for our posture towards those in governmental authority. It says,
 

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.


Who should submit to the governmental authorities? Everyone. But what if they support things you are against? Doesn’t matter. They are in that place because God placed them there. Now, if a ruler asks us to do something that violates God’s law, we must obey God. (Acts 5:29) Ultimately God will hold leaders accountable for their actions and whether they submit to God or not. (Psalm 2) One of our first duties is to pray for them. (1 Tim 2:1-2) How many of us can say our prayers for our leaders outnumber our complaints about them? Scripture says that our attitudes towards our leaders should not change whether or not their politics  mesh with our own. Paul plainly states that we should “honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) He makes no exception for Roman emperors who are unfriendly to Christians.

Concluding Thoughts

We’ve looked at some principles for how we should think about refugees within the sphere of our national citizenship. Next month we will look at this topic as it relates to the sphere of the church. I cannot tell you what you should believe regarding our national policy for immigration and refugees. But it is my hope that we will seek to turn our thinking on the matter in a scriptural direction. How can we truly call ourselves Christian if we do not seek to conform all our thinking to Christ?

The Government has an obligation to protect its people. There are evil people who take pleasure in destroying anything good, and so the government must protect its citizens from them. But most people don’t fit into that category. Most refugees, I suspect, are like many of the people we met in Iraq. People caught in the middle, simply wanting to take care of their families. Recognizing this was one of the things that turned the tide of the Iraq war. Instead of seeing the local populace as our enemies or a nuisance, we started seeing them as partners and allies. They were then less likely to help Al Qaeda operatives; in fact,  they would give us tips on where the roadside bombs were. Sometimes I even suspect they knew where a roadside bomb was because they planted it! But they didn’t want to harm us; they were just trying to keep their children alive by doing what Al Qaeda forced them to do.

Let’s realize the issues are complicated and that good people can disagree. And just because someone disagrees doesn't mean they hate America--no, they probably want the same thing you do, to keep our nation safe. They just have different ideas for how to do it. Remember, every one of us if deeply affected by sin, so let’s show some more humility. Most of all, let us ensure that we are honoring God and esteeming the name of Christ in all we do.

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

Why Choose a Church?

Why Choose a Church?

Why should you choose a church to regularly attend?  Many people question the value of the institutional church today. I regularly hear people say, “I believe in God and pray, but I don’t feel the need to go to church.” Why should you bother to commit to a church? Let me list a few reasons.

Without Commitment It’s Hard to Grow. If you want to become really good at a sport you need a coach: someone on the outside to hold you accountable to your goals, to see things you cannot see, and to give corrective feedback. When you don’t feel like getting up early to practice, knowing you have a coach waiting for you motivates you. When you are shifting your weight in a way that you can’t notice, a coach can quickly notice the problem. Our spiritual growth is similar. Paul tells us that the way we grow in Christ is by “speaking the truth in love” to one another (Eph 4:15-16). For someone to speak the truth in love to you they need to know you. Committing to one church means you can be known by others who can help you grow. 

You Have Something to Offer. Ultimately, it is selfish to withhold your God-given spiritual gifts from fellow believers. Each person has something to offer for the blessing of others. While you can volunteer here or there outside of church, there is no other place where you can regularly use those gifts to bless others. The church is a community, and a community is healthy when everyone is helping one another.

God Loves the Church. If we love Jesus, we will love what Jesus loves, and Jesus loves the Church. He loves the Church so much he died for it (Eph 4:25). Sometimes we are hurt by churches, or they disappoint us. The Church has also hurt Jesus, yet he lay down his life for it. For someone to say, “I’m a Christian, but not part of a church,” is to ultimately say, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t follow Christ.” How so? Because Christ is the head of his Church. Christ is found in his Church. 

The Church Is a Picture of Heaven. In Revelation 7 we see a picture of heaven. A great multitude of people from all over the world join together in worship. When we gather with others for worship, we are actually gathering with all the angels before God’s heavenly throne (Heb 12:18-24). This means that when we are gathered together for worship we are the closest to heaven we will be on this earth. 

No church is perfect. No church lives up to these ideals. There are an unfortunate number of people who have been deeply hurt by the church. But we cannot let these things keep us from understanding God’s design for the Church. When the Church is being faithful to God, it is an awesome place to be! 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

This is an excerpt from Jon Stoddard’s new book, Choosing a Church: a Biblical and Practical Guide. Get a copy of the book on our church book table or at amazon.com