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30 April 2010
A glimpse at a forthcoming book

When It Comes to Family Ministry, Why You Do It Is Every Bit as Important as How

            "So, tell me," I ask as we wait for our drinks. "Why do you want to transition your ministry to a family-equipping approach?"

            These two staff members are good people. Both of them are passionate about the Gospel, and they long to be faithful to Scripture. Their church has asked me to partner with the church staff to equip parents more effectively. I've completed the preliminary assessments, and fewer than one-fourth of parents in their congregation are consistently engaged in any form of discipleship with their children. This morning, we're convening at a busy coffee shop to map some initial changes in the church.

            "Well," the twenty-something youth minister begins as we search for an empty table, mugs in hand, "what is it? Nine out of every ten kids are dropping out of church after they graduate, aren't they? Evidently, what we're doing right now isn't working." Marty is a newly-minted college graduate and a newlywed, called as the new youth minister a couple of years ago. From what I've heard, he's already gathered quite a youth group. He's considering seminary, but he's not certain he can handle the coursework with all the events that he has planned for the upcoming year. Summer camp is only two months away, so decisions about theological education will have to wait.

            "Mm-hmm," the children's director agrees as she sips her latte. Katherine has overseen the children's programs for nearly three decades. For the first twenty years, she led as a volunteer. A few years ago, a sudden heart attack took her husband's life. Katherine needed a job to support herself and her teenage son, so the church's leadership turned her volunteer role into a full-time position. She must be nearly sixty years old, but she looks much younger. Even in these early stages of the change process, her openness to change has been encouraging. "Eighty-eight percent is what they said at the conference a few weeks ago. We just want to do so much better than that."

            "Is your church actually losing that many?" I ask.

            Both of them look at each other before shrugging.

            "I-I don't really know," the youth minister replies. "I mean, most of them, we don't see after they graduate. Sometimes that's because they're involved in another church or they've plugged in with a college fellowship, I guess. Sometimes they move away completely. I don't think the church has ever actually done a survey or anything like that. It just seems to me that a lot of them are dropping out."

            The children's director nods and continues, "What we thought is that, if we had some programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the dropouts before they happen."

            "I want to help your church," I say to them. "And I will do everything that I can to help you-but first, I'm going to ask you to rethink your reasons for considering these changes. The problem that you think is the problem is probably not the problem at all."[i]


The Infamous Evangelical Dropout Statistic

            Over the past couple of years, I've had conversations of this sort with hundreds of well-meaning church leaders. The denominations have differed, the locations have spanned the globe, and the churches themselves have ranged from minute rural chapels to suburban mega-churches, from aging inner-city congregations to new church plants. Yet the script inevitably runs something like this: Eighty percent, maybe even ninety percent, of students are dropping out of church after high school! Can you help us launch a family ministry program to fix this problem?

            In these statements, ministers and church members are simply echoing the conventional wisdom that they've heard at conferences and read in Christian books. According to these widely-proclaimed assumptions, one of the most pressing problems in ministry is the high percentage of students whose church involvement can't seem to persist much past the pomp and circumstance of their high school processional. A recent Internet search revealed nearly a quarter-million references to the infamous evangelical dropout statistic. [ii]

            This shocking dropout statistic represents a starting-point for all sorts of demands for modifications in ministry practices-including the launch of family ministry programs. The logic throughout most of these references runs something like this: The standard for youth ministry effectiveness is retention of students beyond high school, and an overwhelming percentage of students are dropping out after high school. Whatever youth and children's ministries have been doing is, therefore, clearly not successful. Now, if only churches could come up with more effective ministry practices, they could fix the dropout rate and become more effective.

            One author-in a self-proclaimed "manifesto" for the future of youth ministry-puts it this way:

Kids are dropping out of church after youth group at staggering rates. ... There are flaws in many of our assumptions and methods. ...  While our thinking was correct-for its time-the world of teenagers has changed, and we've been slow in our response. It's like this: When you're in a poor, rural country and see a horse-drawn wagon rolling down a dirt road, you think nothing of it. It fits. But when you're driving through Pennsylvania Dutch country and see a horse-drawn buggy rolling down a nice, paved road and holding up traffic, it seems as though something doesn't fit. In many ways youth ministry today is the latter horse-drawn buggy.[iii]


In other words, if only we can come up with ministry methods that respond more effectively to the culture, we can fix the dropout rate-until, of course, the cultural gales gust in some other direction and turn the latest trend into one more horse-drawn buggy.

            As I have consulted with congregations about family ministry, here's what I have found in many churches: Congregational leaders see family ministry as a counterbalance for the high dropout numbers that they've heard at a conference or read in a book. They perceive partnering with parents as a quick fix for the problem of a faith that can't seem to last through the freshman year of college.


What If the Sky Really Isn't Falling?

            Perhaps you've read about the crisis too, or maybe you've heard the dropout statistic at a recent conference. Perhaps that's even why you purchased this book: You're convinced that better partnerships between church and parents provide the perfect solution to dismal retention rates. If that's why you picked up this book, I commend your desire to partner with parents (as well as your impeccable taste in reading material). At the same time, I am about to make a suggestion that may challenge the logic that has brought you to this place.

            Here it is: The dropout rate is not a sufficient reason to reorient your ministry practices; in fact, the dropout rate may not be a problem at all.

            I know, I know; I've just shoved a sacred cow through the slaughterhouse door. I can already sense what some readers are saying at this point: "What? Our youth groups are losing most of our students as soon as they graduate from high school! Don't you care about them?" Well, of course I care about students' souls-I simply don't believe that the dropout rate is the problem.

            Here's why I don't perceive the dropout rate to be particularly problematic: First off, it's uncertain whether the rate of attrition that looms so large in our ecclesiastical anxiety closets even exists. And furthermore, even if a high dropout rate does exist, attrition rates represent an inadequate means for assessing ministry failure or success. Attrition rates are certainly not a sufficient motivation to swap ministry models-even if that means you're switching to a family ministry model. To understand what I'm suggesting, let's first take a closer look at the numbers behind the infamous evangelical dropout statistic.


Gut Feelings Make for Bad Statistics

            In the first place, where did this datum come from? When did conference speakers first begin to claim that the vast majority of youth were exiting the church before their sophomore year of college? And was their research reliable? The first references to the dropout statistic come from the late 1990s. That's when a well-meaning but statistically-challenged speaker reported a post-youth group attrition rate of 88%. And how did he obtain his numbers?

            When a doctoral student tracked down this datum, here's what the student found: The speaker's information was based on nothing more than the "gut feelings" that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministry professionals.[iv]

            Of course, there's nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. Yet the communal hunch of a single group rarely results in a reliable statistic. In this case, an informal averaging of personal recollections resulted in a wildly overstated percentage that received tremendous publicity.[v] As a result, over the past couple of decades, many youth ministries have leaped from one bandwagon to another and another, driven by the collective sensation of a few youth pastors' intestinal tracts at one particular gathering of ministry professionals in the waning years of the twentieth century.

            So why do the dropout percentages represent an insufficient reason to reorient your church toward an emphasis on family ministry? It's because, in the first place, many of these dropout numbers-particularly the "nine-out-of-ten" ratio-were false alarms. The infamous evangelical attrition rate of 88% does not rightly describe the present reality, and it probably never described any past reality.

            So what is the real attrition rate? How many students actually do drop out of church in the months following their graduation ceremonies? Attrition rates can vary radically from one denomination to another and even from one congregation to another. A few conservative evangelical mega-churches have recently reported reliable retention rates of 88% or better among young adults who had been actively engaged in dynamic student ministries-meaning that these congregations lost 12% or less of their youth.[vi]

            As a whole, however, it appears that a little less than half of church-involved students typically disengage from church during their early young adult years. When a research sample mixed occasional youth attenders with youth who were deeply involved in their churches, the resulting dropout rate rose to 70%. Some studies have suggested that a significant number of young adults reengage with church by the time they turn thirty, often when they marry or have children.[vii] Such attrition patterns are certainly not cause for celebration. Yet the real dropout numbers vary, and they are far removed from the spurious statistics that have been spouted from the platforms of far too many ministry conferences.


Why Jesus Would Have Failed in Ministry

            But let's suppose for a moment that your church actually does have a retention problem. Would that provide a sufficient motive to realign your congregation around an entirely new ministry model? Asked another way, is ongoing church involvement really the truest metric of a ministry's success? Or could it be that churches are using the wrong yardstick to measure their ministry models?

            During his days on the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have been notoriously unconcerned about attrition rates. At one point, "a large crowd" of well over five thousand was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1-25). Then, after one particular teaching session, the numbers of paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen-an attrition rate of well over ninety-nine percent!

            And what did Jesus say to the few who remained with him? "Okay, guys, what can I do to improve my retention rates? If I don't come up with a new ministry model, my Father will be so displeased with me! Let's brainstorm a bit to figure this out"?

            Not even close.

            "Do you want to go away as well?" was what Jesus asked his closest companions as thousands of former followers filed away; then, he added, "Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil" (John 6:67, 70).

            A couple of years later, one Passover eve in the Garden of Gethsemane, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord, and the divine dropout rate veered toward one hundred percent (Mark 14:50-52; John 16:32). At this rate, Jesus would have failed as a minister in many contemporary churches. Yet, in all of this, the service of God the Son infinitely and perfectly pleased God the Father. Jesus remained the beloved one in whom the Father was "well pleased" (Mark 1:11; see also John 10:17). Even in the moments when his closest companions abandoned and denied him-in some sense, especially in those moments when "he was despised and rejected by men"-Jesus fully fulfilled his Father's will  (Isa. 53:3-11). It was our sin that spiked Jesus to the cross, not his attrition rates.

            So what's the problem with allowing retention rates to drive revisions in a church's model of ministry? Simply this: It turns the visible growth and maintenance of a local community of faith into the primary focus instead of Jesus and the Gospel. When retention rates determine how we envision a church's future, we have made too much of our visions for the community of faith and too little of the One in whom we place our faith. In the process, we lose sight of the true vitality and value of the very community that we were planning to preserve.

            Please don't misread my point: The local, gathered community of faith is important! Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life to "present the church to himself in splendor" (Eph. 5:25-27). Whenever anyone drops out of active involvement in Christian community, the congregation is correct to be concerned. Yet neither numeric retention nor expansion constitutes a sufficient goal for shaping Christian community. Jesus alone provides the paradigm for the people of God (Phil. 2:5; Heb. 12:2). The church is "the body of Christ," and the church's value and identity flow from the all-surpassing glory and beauty of Jesus (Eph. 4:12-16; Col. 1:24-27; 3:1-4). "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this," German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote. "We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ." The goal of the Gospel is not merely to retain members in community; the goal is to call people to Jesus.



Gospel (in Greek, euangelion, "good message")   The Gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that accomplishes redemption and restoration for all who believe and for the entire created order. Through his life Jesus fulfilled the Law of God and accomplished all righteousness on behalf of sinners who have broken God's Law at every point. Through his death Jesus atones for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God and obtaining forgiveness for all who believe. Through his resurrection Jesus guaranteed our victory over sin and death in him and through him. Jesus' saving work not only redeems sinners, uniting them to God, but also assures the future restoration of all creation. This is the "good message," that God redeems a fallen world by his grace.[viii]



The Search for Gospel-Centered Growth

            Sometimes, when a congregation makes much of Jesus and the Gospel, the results include explosive growth or stellar retention rates. Seven weeks after Jesus erupted alive from a garden tomb, three thousand women and men confessed Jesus as the risen Lord, and the congregation still kept growing (Acts 2:41-47). Before long, five thousand names could be found on the church rolls (Acts 4:4). Even after two church members dropped dead while trying to bamboozle the apostle Peter, new believers still swarmed into the community (Acts 5:1-14). The earliest Christians rightly recognized this growth as a glorious and wonderful outpouring of God's grace (Acts 2:47)-and yet, that's not always what happens when the Gospel is proclaimed.

            At other times, it may be possible to make much of Jesus with negligible results, at least as far as any human eye can see. The results could even include outcomes that seem negative from the perspective of retention (1 John 2:19). The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another (Luke 8:4-18). Furthermore, it is possible to attract and even to retain a multitude of followers for all the wrong reasons (2 Peter 2:1-2).

            Yes, the proclamation of God's Word does result in growth and in unfailing fulfillment of God's purposes (Isa. 55:10-11)-but this growth may take place in ways that are difficult to quantify in ratios of attrition and retention. Growth often unfolds less like a series of figures on a ledger sheet and more like seeds sprouting in the soil or like yeast seeping through a lump of dough (Luke 13:18-21). Godly growth is sometimes slow, often hidden, not infrequently frustrating to our dreams and designs, but always centered on Jesus and the Gospel.


What Family-Equipping Ministry Isn't

            All of this has profound implications for why and how a church does family ministry. If the congregation's motive for forming a family ministry is to find a programmatic panacea to solve a perceived problem of losing young adults, the church's strategy will have failed before family ministry even begins-even if every church member applauds the new programs as a resounding success. Such a congregation has bought into the soul-draining delusion that growth depends not on the Word of God but on implementing the right programs to respond to each problem.

            This sort of "family ministry" results, at first, in a rapid flurry of family-friendly activities. Then, as soon as new problems and new programs come along, the family events fade into the background as the newest quick-fix takes center stage. Such patterns reflect much of the pragmatic consumerism of Western culture and little of Gospel-centered community. According to the apostle Paul, the pagans of past cultures "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23). In our own way, we too trade the glory of God for the short-lived pleasures of lesser gods. Whereas the pagans exchanged divine glory for images of terrestrial beauty, we tend to substitute one more curriculum, one more series of steps to success, one more problem-solving program that eclipses the Gospel.

            Family ministry of the sort that I am describing in this book is not a program to fix a congregation's retention problems. It cannot be reduced to a series of conferences or activities or seminars. Family-equipping ministry is a means of equipping households to become outposts of God's mission in the world, contexts where Christian community is consistently practiced and rehearsed. This isn't about retaining young adults on the attendance rolls; it's about coordinating the church's families around a common, Gospel-centered perspective on parents and children.


Looking for the Real Problem

            The coffee mugs are nearly empty. The morning rush is over, and the coffee shop has grown quiet. Our next stop is a meeting with the senior pastor at the church campus.

            "That sounds good-it really does," the youth minister says, "but I don't see how we can sell it to the church. I mean, if there aren't any problems with what we're already doing, why go to the trouble of changing things?"

            "Whoa, whoa," I respond, waving my hand, "I'm not saying that there aren't any problems. What I'm trying to get at is that family ministry has to be more than a program to fix retention rates-and that retention rates aren't really the problem in the first place."

            "Well, is there a problem in our church?" Katherine asks as she slips her mug into the tray of dirty dishes.

            "Sure-and, even though retention rates aren't the real problem, it could even be that some of the dropouts are symptoms of deeper issues." I pull up a slideshow on my computer. "Take a look."

            Marty and Katherine peer over my shoulders as I click through several charts that illustrate parents' involvement in their children's Christian formation. The results from the surveys are somewhat dismal. Most parents in their church haven't even opened a Bible with their children in the past six months. Fewer than ten percent pray with their children at any time other than meals. Fewer still practice any form of family devotions.

            "So the problem is just that parents need to start reading the Bible and praying with their kids?" Marty asks. "Because, if that's all that needs to happen, we could invite parents to youth group one Sunday night and encourage them to start family devotions. I could even make up some worksheets to help them."

            "That's a good idea-it really is," I tell him. "But, if you want them to engage spiritually with their children for longer than a few weeks after the training that you're describing, you'll need to build some foundations to make family ministry part of the church's culture. Getting parents to do faith-talks or family devotions is a great start-but it's only a start."

            "I thought we were just launching a family ministry program," Marty counters. "Now, you're talking about changing an entire church culture-that's massive. I don't even know where we would start."

            "You start with something far more basic than what parents are doing."

            "Which is-?" Katherine asks.

            "The parents in your church don't know who their children really are."

[i] The conversations recounted throughout this book do not come from my work with one particular congregation; they represent syntheses of common elements from four separate conversations with very different churches.

[ii] Portions drawn from B. Shields, "Family-Based Ministry: Separated Contexts, Shared Focus," in Perspectives on Family Ministry, ed. T. Jones (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009).

[iii] M. Oestreicher

[iv] Jay Strack seems to have been the individual with whom the 88% attrition rate originated. In a personal interview with Brandon Shields in September 2006, Strack specifically stated that he never intended this information to serve as a published statistic.

[v] V. Lee and J. Pipes released a book entitled Family to Family (Alpharetta, Georgia: North American Mission Board, 1999) in which they stated that 88% of evangelical youth drop out of the church after high school graduation. This statistic was picked up and quoted numerous times during Southern Baptist Convention meetings in an attempt to call for withdrawal from the public education system. For discussions of this issue see Baptist Press articles entitled "SBC Calls for Cultural Engagement; Education Resolution Declined" (June 2004): <http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=18501>, and, "Family Life Council Says It's Time to Bring Family Back to Life" (June 2002): <http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc02/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=261>

[vi] B. Shields, "An Assessment of Dropout Rates of Former Youth Group Participants in Conservative Southern Baptist Megachurches" (Ph.D diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008).

[vii] In a 2002 study, George Gallup determined that 51% of 16-to-17-year-olds are involved in a faith-community while 32% of 18-to-29-year-olds are engaged, suggesting a net attrition rate of 40%. Gallup defined faith-community involvement as attendance in the past seven days (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6124/Religiosity-Cycle.aspx). Research from an Adventist scholar reported an attrition rate 49% among Adventist young adults with a significant number returning when they are married or when they become parents (R. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church [Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 1999] 35). This is apparently not a recent phenomenon: Data from the 1970s suggested that 46% of persons disengaged from their faith-communities at some point during their lives; 51% of these persons eventually returned (D. Roozen, "Church Dropouts: Changing Patterns of Disengagement and Re-Entry" Review of Religious Research Supplement [1980]: 427-450). Church involvement may also influence young people toward earlier marriage. See R. Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University, 2007) 137.

[viii] Paraphrased from a definition given by Joe Thorne, Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship.

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12 March 2010
Longing for the Garden

by Timothy Paul Jones


(c) 2010 Southern Seminary


"Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost." (John Milton, Paradise Lost, 780-784)


The story is a familiar one--a creation filled with promise and a serpent filled with lies, a woman contemplating forbidden fruit, the man silent by her side. A choice was made, a hand extended, and the cosmos was forever changed.


No one on earth today has ever stood in the spot where Adam and Eve took their first taste of cosmic treason. Yet our souls still bear the scars of their ancient exile from Eden. Even those of us who thrive in the cities cannot seem to escape our yearning for a garden where natural harmony abounds. Top billings in online listings of "Best Cities to Live In" inevitably require not only plentiful sidewalks and public-transit systems but also slivers of the Eden in the form of spacious parks and tree-lined parkways.


Even in urban neighborhoods where the only foliage in sight is a single wisp of a weed straining through a crack in the sidewalk, the street names are likely to wax botanical--Elm Park and Oak Lawn, Evergreen Avenue and Pine Street. Condominiums at the corner of Asphalt Avenue and Pavement Place don't attract many purchasers. Our primeval parents left the Garden of Eden, but somehow the Garden never left us.



Eden at the Cineplex


This year, evidence of humanity's hunger for Eden is as near as the neighborhood movie theater. Yet the blockbuster film Avatar presents a paradise very different from the one described in Scripture. On a forest moon known as Pandora, blue-fleshed tribes of Na'vi coexist in idyllic unity with the life of the natural world. Eywa, the mother goddess, balances and personifies this matrix of life. Although she appears at one point to answer a prayer, the "great mother" is neither personal nor transcendent.


Ultimately, a scientist discovers that the inner life of Pandora is a biological network of "electrochemical communications." When creatures die, their spirits are absorbed into Eywa. Living Na'vi are able to link themselves with this living network and commune with spirits from the past. In the year 2154, an ex-Marine named Jake Sully joins a Na'vi clan with less-than-noble intentions--but, when a greedy corporation joins with the military to take Pandora from the natives, Sully musters the Na'vi to defeat his former comrades.


This is not a new story-line, of course. Apart from the stunning three-dimensional animation, virtually everything in Avatar is recycled from earlier features. This film is equal parts Dances with Wolves and Star Wars with tip-offs to The Matrix and an ancient Hindu tale tossed in along the way. As it turns out, the theology of Avatar is nothing new either.



A Nature-Embedded God?


The God of the opening chapters of Genesis is like no other deity in Ancient Near Eastern literature. He infinitely transcends the cosmos and yet intimately involves himself with his creatures. His Spirit hovers over the chaos before creation. Yet he also spins a spouse for Adam from a piece of bone and converses with his creatures in the cool of the day.


What popular films ranging from Star Wars to Avatar propose in place of such a God are forms of pantheism, the belief that "all is God." The presence of pantheistic tendencies in a film doesn't mean that a Christian can't appreciate the vivid flora of the planetoid Pandora or the sweeping saga of Anakin Skywalker. It does, however, call Christians to think critically not only about the images on the screen but also about the theological claims in the script.


Pantheism appeals to humanity's hunger for a perfect natural world by embedding God within nature. This has far-reaching consequences for our perspectives on God and the world: If God and the cosmos are one, creation is neither fallen nor broken; the cosmos is merely imbalanced. Sin is no longer rebellion against God but a failure to maintain balance and harmony with nature.


Multiple forms of pantheism may be found in Hindu practices and pagan philosophies that predate Christianity. Modern pantheism, however, traces back to the centuries following the Protestant Reformation--and pantheism attracted far less applause then than now. The Roman Catholic Inquisition executed Giordano Bruno for proclaiming pantheist perspectives; the Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated Benedict Spinoza on similar charges.


In the nineteenth century, earlier trends toward pantheism mingled with the idealism of Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant to spawn "transcendentalism." Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted pantheistic ideals in American contexts, with Emerson declaring himself to be "part or parcel of God." In the latter half of the twentieth century, appeals to a pantheistic goddess provided many feminists with a neo-pagan path away from Judeo-Christian beliefs. Today, the shelves beneath the "Religion and Spirituality" sign at your local bookstore bulge with books from the ideological heirs of Western transcendentalism and Eastern pantheism.



The Problem with Pantheism


The problem with pantheism is precisely the same as its attraction. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "The pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there for you if you wish for him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you." The pantheist "God" is a deity in the background, available in all things but interrupting nothing.


Whatever else the God of Scripture may or may not be, he is never imprisoned in the background.  He suspends the spinnings of the solar system and hurls hailstones from the heavens. He slays the firstborn sons of Egypt and splits the sea for the children of Israel. And all of these acts were preparatory for that moment when God would invade human history amid the amniotic fluids of Mary's womb and reveal his glory through a cross and empty tomb. To merge God with creation is to discard the centrality of God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.


This is quite clear in a recent Huffington Post article in which columnist Jay Michaelson praises the pluralistic possibilities of pantheism: For the one who believes that all is God, "sometimes God is Christ on the cross, sometimes the Womb of the Earth. Sometimes God is Justice, other times Mercy. This is how sophisticated religionists have understood theology for at least a thousand years."


Here's the challenge for churches in all of this: The perspectives of the supposed "sophisticated religionists" are more common among the people in the pews than most of us would care to admit. According to a recent Pew Forum study, nearly one-fourth of professing Christians believe there is "spiritual energy" to be found within such natural entities as trees and mountains. Sociologist Christian Smith discovered that most teenagers--even in evangelical churches--see their faith as "part of the furniture in the background of their lives." While not full-fledged pantheism, the practical implications of such a position differ little from pantheistic perspectives. Once I relegate God to the background of life, God can be construed as whoever or whatever I desire.



Exiles from the Garden, Seekers of the City


On a fan site for the film Avatar, one thread includes suggestions for helping people to deal with their despair once they realize that the world of Pandora is "intangible." And, indeed, this dream is intangible--though not for the reasons that participants in the discussion seem to think. A Pandoran paradise is unattainable because God and nature have never been one. The cosmos is cursed, and all creation groans beneath the weight of humanity's sin.


Furthermore, God never intended Adam and Eve to live as noble savages in a primitive paradise. Before sin ever entered Eden, God designated human beings as vice-regents with a responsibility not only to nurture the natural world but also to fill the earth with new communities (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). Communities and cities were part of God's good design from the beginning. At the end of time, God consummates his plan not with a return to Eden but with the creation of a "holy city" where the promise of Eden is fulfilled (Rev. 21:2; 22:1-2).


Does this mean that Christians should purge themselves of every concern for nature and the created order? Far from it! Creation is the theater of God's glory and the context of divine redemption. Even in the shadow of the curse, the natural world declares God's wonders (Ps. 19:1-6). Christians in particular bear a responsibility to steward God's creation wisely and never wastefully.


These concerns are not, however, a call back to Eden. Sin has turned us into exiles from a world that once was, but God is preparing his children for the glory of a realm that is yet to be (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 John 3:2). Everything that is precious and good in this present world foreshadows a city "whose designer and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10)--a city that includes not only gates and streets but also crystal-clear waters and a life-giving tree (Rev. 21:21; 22:2-3).


"It's so hard ... to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen," one person declared regarding his post-Avatar blues. "I think I need a rebound movie." He is partly right. Remaining in a primitive paradise will never happen--it was never intended to happen. But no "rebound movie" will ever satisfy the yearnings of his soul. What he senses is the groaning of creation. And what creation groans for is not a restoration of Eden but the revealing of God's Son with the blood-redeemed heirs of his kingdom (Rom. 8:16-23).

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23 February 2010
How the Apostles' Creed Can Keep You from Killing Your Spouse

A message on the Sixth Commandment from TimothyPaulJones.

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22 February 2010
Living in the Big Good Story

A message on family discipleship from TimothyPaulJones

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30 November 2009
Thoughts for the first day of Advent

(c) 2009 Timothy Paul Jones

Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from a Latin term that means “toward the coming.” The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season, although the ancient fasting concluded not on Christmas Day but on January 6, with a celebration of the arrival of the wise men or the baptism of Jesus. By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by forty days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations. For many of us, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple, followed by one pink and another purple—during the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

Advent seems to have fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is understandable, though no less lamentable; we Protestants are, after all, quite fearful of anything with potentially papal or patriarchal origins. Many Protestants divested themselves of the church year in the aftermath of the sixteenth-century Reformation and still quake at any attempt to derive anything of value from such traditions. When I instituted Advent celebrations as a pastor in a Baptist congregation, I was asked more times than I care to recall, “Don’t Catholics do that?”—as if that automatically prohibited us from even considering such a practice. Yet, even in congregations that echo more ancient liturgies, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced, eclipsed by the crèche in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall, and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.

Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year? Perhaps it is because, for believers and non-believers alike, calendars are not dominated by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swift currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave has saved us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards have redeemed us from waiting on cash in hand to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with Advent, that awkward season of waiting. And so, even before the last Halloween costume has been returned to the warehouse, halls and malls begin to be decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbons. Thanksgiving provides us with a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but, most of all, Thanksgiving supplies a convenient time to gather for the consumer feeding frenzy known as Black Friday. Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.

In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most profitable lives here and now, Advent seems like a particularly awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but passed on before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting. Even on this side of Christ’s first coming, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” St. Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace this groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that is already being prepared. In Advent, believers proclaim that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.”

When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own agenda. When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting. When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling two-year-old who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this toddler in worship, for there is holiness in his waiting too.

I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow trigger a renaissance of patience in our culture. Nor am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting. Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the Gospel and bow to the gods of efficiency—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the Gospel through the discipline of patience. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news of God through his return in glory. Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent trains us to get the message that God speaks even in the waiting.

If you wish to reprint this article, please email timothy@timothypauljones.com for permission.

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Updated: 30 November 2009 12:28 CST
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29 October 2009
Message from chapel service at Youthworks College in Australia

TimothyPaulJones was privileged to teach in Australia in late September and early October 2009. This message was preached in a beautiful outdoor setting at Youthworks College, south of Sydney.

The Calling That Jeremiah Never Asked For

To view pictures from the message, click here (if you have a Facebook account) or here (if you don't).

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Updated: 29 October 2009 08:12 CDT
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21 October 2009
Interview on CrossTalk America now available for download

To listen to the recent interview with Ingrid Schueter about Christian History Made Easy, check out:


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19 September 2009
What Jim Burns had to say about Perspectives on Family Ministry

After reading Perspectives on Family Ministry, Jim Burn--president of HomeWord--said,

"There is a fresh wind blowing in the church in the world of family ministry! This book is foundational and practical at the same time. These authors recognize that family ministry is not a program but a mindset that must be worked into every part of the church and home. I haven’t read a better book to help us follow the biblical mandate to help families succeed. It’s well researched and well-written. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to get their arms around family ministry."

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Updated: 17 September 2009 08:30 CDT
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18 September 2009
What Dennis Rainey had to say about Perspectives on Family Ministry

After reading Perspectives on Family Ministry, president of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey said:

“After devoting nearly 35 years of my life championing the cause of the family, I
enthusiastically applaud the current movement of equipping church pastors in family ministry based upon the tenets of scripture. Dr. Jones, through his book Perspectives on Family Ministry, has provided an important teaching tool that will serve the pastorate well.”

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Updated: 17 September 2009 08:30 CDT
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17 September 2009
TimothyPaulJones on Take Five with Eddie Baiseri

Eddie Baiseri hosts Take Five on KBJS in Texas, and I was privileged to be on her show this week. She is an enjoyable and energetic interviewer--a delight to talk to! Here are links to order the resources that we mentioned:

Christian History Made Easy book

Christian History Made Easy slideshow

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