EEK! Here we are, already in the Advent Season, and we are tapped out. If you are still searching for something to do with Children, Teens or Family Ministries for Christmas Tide or after the New Year, we share lots of ideas on this podcast. Below are a few links of resources that we discuss. If you are not connected with anyone in a network to share ideas, please send a message. If you have some great ideas, please share in the comments. This will become a resource where we can send people to who are looking for ideas. We need to lean on one another as we lead during these unprecedented times!
We can’t tell the future, but we do know that we are not “going back to normal” once we are on the other side of this pandemic. A few youth leaders talk about what they see as the future of Youth Ministry, post pandemic. The key to all ministry is relationships. This was true pre-pandemic and it will hold true post-pandemic. As we move through this time of social distancing, be creative on creating community and keep an open mind on the definition of “community.” It is time youth leaders focus on relationships and discipleship and less on programs. We know that we can become “zoomed out.” Our students, after a long day on the computer for school, don’t want to be back on in the evening for youth group. This is difficult and requires us to be creative. This creativity is what needs to carry us into our time post-pandemic. Whatever you decide, leaders, do not simply think you are going to go back to what you were doing before. We are all changed people from our experiences from this pandemic; therefore, there will be a new norm. Our lives will be different and ministry will be changed.
In order to understand racism today, we need to review the history as it has lead us to this point. Below you will find a few helpful links and other resources to help individuals who want to educated themselves and who are leading others. Be sure you listen to the podcast as well for more thoughts and information.
Mary Turner was mentioned in the podcast. Be sure you take time to learn about her as well as other African Americans whose lives have been taken senselessly.
The year 1619 was referenced. This is the year that the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America. Here is a resource to learn more.
Another important point made in the podcast is around the theology of Imago Dei, made in the image of God. It is hard to understand racism if as Christians we believe that EVERYONE is made in the image of God. This is a great way to begin a small group talk on the subject of racism.
We also talk of the merger that happened in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. You can find out more information here and see the impact that had on the church and on the black communities.
A couple of resources to understand the United Methodist Church’s stand on racism can be found through our Social Principles.
There are six questions that are helpful to guide your conversation:
Who have you talked to/shared this information with?
How have you stepped out of your “comfort zone” to hear from/learn from the affected demographic?
What have you read or learned to increase your knowledge of the subject? What does the Bible say?
How have you invested (time and money) in addressing this issue/topic?
Have you identified policy (in the UMC and in government) that needs to change and considered impact and history?
This is a summary and response to Chapter 3 of Reggie Joiner’s book, “A New Kind of Leader.” This chapter takes a look at why your church matters to children and youth ministries.
The first point that the reader has to address in this chapter is, “Why does your church matter?” It is interesting that he says on page 49 that your church is a place, a physical location where people gather. In the recent weeks, we have learned that the “church” isn’t just a building. We have proved that, while we enjoy the community felt when we are physically in the same location, the church is exists outside a building as well.
“Church” is how/where you experience community, family and acceptance. It’s important to be sure you are creating a culture of acceptance for children and teens. This culture happens in the space where you gather in the church building, in homes where you hold small groups, and out in your community when you encounter kids.
I really appreciate this quote on page 52, “Youth can’t make relationships happen. You can only create environments that make it easier for relationships to happen.” Leaders and congregation members need to know names of the kids and what their interests are. These things will allow kids to know they are loved and have a place to belong. This includes the kids in your church and the community.
Kids need a leader who will improve the environment of their church. How can you personally take responsibility to improve your church in very practically ways? Think about how someone new feels walking into your church, especially someone who has never gone to church before. A few thoughts that Joiner shares in his book:
Use more convicting words on your church sign
Offer unlimited donuts for every child
Have a bear mascot to stand in the street and point one of those twirling signs at your church
I would add:
Make sure you have children’s activity bags for worship
Ask them to be a part of worship, including ready scripture or sharing about their camp or VBS experiences
This blog is a summary and response to the first chapter in Reggie Joiner’s book, A New Kind of Leader. The title really resonates with me. Through the years, I have often thought that many of the issues we face with children/youth ministry lays with that fact that we do not take passing our faith on to the next generation very seriously. The Christian denomination has relied on the “professionals” or volunteers to train our children on the way they should go. We have not understood the responsibility to be on the whole congregation.
Joiner’s quote on page 19 is spot on, “[I]f you want to affect the way a generation sees the world, then it makes sense to start influencing their character and faith when they are young.” Anyone in youth ministry will tell you it is vital to form the faith foundation of individuals before the age of eighteen.
He goes on to say on page 20 that “What you do for kids is more important than anything else you do.” I know plenty of churches that believe if they spend money hiring a Children’s or Youth Director, give them a budget, they have done enough. This is just not the case. It takes the investment of the entire congregation in the lives of the young people in your community to make positive impressions. Reggie says, “What you do now for a kid is more important than what you do for them later as an adult.” (pg. 21).
Research shows that the average age of church members increases by seven years every decade. (pg 24) In fact, in the next decade the average age of those in our mainline denominations will be over sixty. I know many churches see this and want to do something about it. The problem is, we keep thinking we have to go back to the last time we saw the numbers we wanted in children and youth ministries. Here is the catch, we can’t do ministry now like we did twenty years ago when our Sunday school classrooms were full. Times have changed, culture has changed, kids have changed. But for some reason, the church has stayed the same.
So, bottom line here is: WE NEED MORE ADULTS INVOLVED IN THE LIVES OF CHILDREN IN OUR COMMUNITIES. Youth and Children’s leaders have been saying this for years. We MUST invest in the future of our faith, and the way to do that is to invest in the lives of children. This is not just a financial investment. Children need your time, your attention and your love. They need to know that there are adults in our churches who care about them enough to get to know their names, their activities, their interests and their passions. No one ages out of this responsibility.
If you have reached the end of this blog and are a little offended or uncomfortable, then I have accomplished my goal. I admit, I live with blinders on, always focused on ministry with young people, but I do not believe I am off the mark here. In fact this book states everything youth leaders have been talking about in their own circles for a number of years. So, what are you going to do about it? What conversations to you need to have? What questions are swirling in your head? Leave a comment, make a suggestion, or simply give your own opinion. Let’s start the conversation together.
This book is discussed on Fridays at 10:00 a.m. on Zoom. Send a message for a link to be a part of the conversation with youth leaders and pastors.
Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He had a key role in the story of the arrest and eventual crucifixion of Christ. Was Judas a pawn in this event? Was it free will or predestination? What if he had made a different choice? We dive into these questions and more in this podcast.
Scripture Readings: John 13:21-30 and 17:6-19 (focus v12)
Do you think everything happens for a reason? What situation could arise where this idea may be damaging to a person?
How do we answer that same question from the framework of our faith?
In the gospels, there is some suggestion that Judas was “used” in order to accomplish a greater purpose. What is your reaction to that?
Do you think God uses people to accomplish certain purposes?
How do we understand the relationship between free will and God’s will?
Can you think of other stories in the Bible in which it seems that people do/don’t have free will?
How does this help/change your perspective on your own life?
Today is a holiday in the church. One that not every Christian, especially protestants, observe. It may be one that seems a bit different, even a little odd. And even if we understand it, we may not know the history. This blog and podcast should help you as you reflect today, preparing for the Lenten season.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-21
History of Ash Wednesday
The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality, and penance. For instance, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 BCE) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). These Old Testament examples evidence both a recognized practice of using ashes and a common understanding of their symbolism.
The early Church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. Tertullian (c. 160-220) prescribed that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his The History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.
In the Middle Ages (at least by the time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?” To which the dying person replied, “I am content.” In all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality, and penance is clear.
Eventually, the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates at least to the 8th century. Since the Middle Ages, the Church has used ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins.
Traditionally, the palm branches from Palm Sunday of the previous year are used to create the ashes. This is intended to suggest that even the jubilant crowds on Palm Sunday were ultimately at least partly complicit in Jesus’ death. While the literal truth of that is questionable, the fact remains that even the most faithful Christian still sins and falls short.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-21
‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When you attend an Ash Wednesday service (or when you have in the past), what is the tone or mood of the service? What are some memorable moments in the Ash Wednesday liturgy?
Mourning, mortality and penance are not exactly concepts we discuss every day.
What do we make of this idea of mourning for our sins?
Is there value in remembering our own mortality from time to time?
What is the purpose of penance? Is that a helpful concept for us?
Many folks eliminate a food or habit during Lent. Others try to adopt a spiritual practice (or discipline) during that time. What is the purpose of that exercise? Why might we choose to make such a change during Lent?
In the Catholic tradition, confession is offered to a priest. In the book of James, it is suggested that we should confess our sins to one another. Many churches have a moment of confession in their service, and it is a part of the United Methodist communion liturgy. What is the purpose of confession, and does it help anything?
We generally think of shame as being a negative thing, but the idea of shame is sometimes associated with Ash Wednesday. Is that helpful? Is there a better way of naming it?
What is repentance? How does it relate to all these other things (confession, shame, penance, etc)?
How might this passage from Matthew help to orient us for the season of Lent?
This gospel is the first in the new testament but is actually written a generation after Mark. Remember, these stories were not written down in journals while the disciples were with Jesus. The stories were shared verbally for a couple of generations before they were actually written. Take a listen to this podcast to find out some more interesting truths about this book of the Bible.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-20, Matthew 11:7-19, Matthew 13
The gospel of Matthew was written in a formal, polished Greek that would have been used in synagogues at the time Matthew was writing. This helps us understand his identity and his audience.
Matthew probably dates from 80-90CE. A few scholars suggest as early as 70CE and a few as late as 110CE.
As with Mark, the author of Matthew is unknown and the name was likely assigned for symbolic reasons. The author of Matthew may have been someone named Matthew (we don’t know), but it was almost certainly not the apostle of the same name. (It would have been the wrong time frame, just for starters.)
In our last podcast, we shared that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. This is affirmed by the fact that about 91% of Mark’s content shows up in Matthew (600 of 661 verses). [Note: There is probably a tendency amongst literal readers of scripture to use this similarity as an argument for both gospel authors having been present and rendered Jesus’ words verbatim. We may want to decide if we want to address that or not.]
It might be helpful to suggest the idea that gospel writers were more compilers and editors (storytellers, in a sense) than they were creators of original material. This makes sense when we consider the time frame and that stories had been being passed down for some time. Matthew draws on at least three sources: Mark, material that is common to Luke (“Q”), and material unique to his community and tradition.
The Christian community to which Matthew belonged was still part of the larger Jewish community, but to some degree, they were beginning to be cut off from their Jewish roots. Recall that the Jesus movement began as a movement WITHIN Judaism and only later became a distinct religion. There was undoubtedly conflict between Matthew’s community and other Jewish communities as they began to diverge in their understanding of Jesus.
The gospel of Matthew has its own unique attributes: for example, it identifies Jesus as the “new Moses” (liberator) by telling the story of his family’s flight to Egypt (unique to this gospel). It doesn’t bother to explain Jewish traditions, since its audience was Jewish themselves. It includes a birth narrative that expresses a particular view of Jesus’ kingship.
Plagiarism is a HUGE issue in schools these days. What is the difference between just copying someone else’s story and using it as a source to tell your own story? What are some examples in our world? Song remix, updated movie, etc.
How do we understand the fact that Matthew was using the Gospel of Mark as source material? Is that surprising? Unsettling?
One source calls Matthew a “creative reinterpretation” of Mark’s gospel. What do you think about that?
Matthew stresses the divinity of Jesus, often by making small changes to the narrative. Why do we suppose this was important to
Matthew at the time he was writing? Can we identify how this is a little different than Mark? Is it ok that one gospel writer might stress Jesus’ divinity a little more while another might focus more on his humanity? How might this be helpful for us as readers of scripture?
Matthew often uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (29 times!) because of a Jewish tradition of not speaking (or writing) the name of God. How might this change our understanding of passages that appear to be referring to heaven but actually refer to the “kingdom of God”? [See, for example, the passages in Matthew 11 and 13.]
Jesus talked much about power dynamics, money and violence, but yet those topics are not things we tend to discuss in church today. It’s interesting to look at 1st Century Palestine to see the similarities and difference of the time when Jesus walked the earth.
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-14 & John 1:1-14
As readers of the gospels, there is much we often overlook about the time in which these books were written. First century Palestine looked very little like the modern world, although we might stumble upon a few similarities. Bear in mind that both women and children were still considered property. Male children became “human” at a certain age when they passed into adulthood and were counted as citizens.
The entire New Testament must be understood as a Jewish writing. Jesus was born into a Jewish family and was, himself, Jewish. Even as the books of the New Testament were being written, after the life of Jesus, the authors were writing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the importance of Jesus. While there is plenty of talk about Jews and Gentiles, it would be quite some time (a couple hundred years) because Christianity would come to be understood as a religion separate from Judaism.
The temple in Jerusalem was the central (and “authentic”) place to worship. Jewish people were expected to travel to Jerusalem annually (or as often as possible) for Passover, and the Sadducees were the resident religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. However, since the Jewish people were scattered, there were also synagogues (sort of like local churches), led by Pharisees. Jesus appears in a number of synagogues but (at least in the synoptics) visits the temple in Jerusalem only at the end of his early ministry.
King Herod worked rather hard at ingratiating himself to the Jewish community. He married into a Jewish family. He restored and improved the second temple (can explain) in Jerusalem. However, he was a brutal leader who held none of the values that the Jewish people theoretically observed.
The Roman empire was in charge, and they had a comfortable collaboration with Jewish religious leaders. As long as Jewish people behaved themselves, so to speak, they were permitted to worship and carry on relatively unscathed. However, this was not the vision that Jewish people had for themselves. They desired to be, once again, a proud and independent nation, not a people subjugated and dominated by the Romans. At this time, there were many people who came along claiming to be “the Messiah.” They typically attempted a violent uprising against the Romans and this often resulted in considerable loss of life and a tightening of restrictions on the Jewish people. (See, for example, the Maccabean revolt.)
How was Jesus different from other so-called “Messiahs” who had come before? What were the people expecting? Does this help us understand anything about how they responded to him?
Talk about the notion of the Roman Empire and its values. What do we make of the fact that Jewish religious leaders had quite a good arrangement going with the Romans while everyday people found it to be oppressive and something from which they wished to be “freed.” Does this remind us of anything in our own time?
The US has often been called the new Roman Empire. What does we make of that?
We do not typically think about the issue of violence when we talk about Jesus and the gospels. But much of the difference between his ministry and the prevailing will of the Romans had to do with the exercise (or non-use) of violence. Where are we with the issue of violence today?
Our scripture readings today are from the beginning of the two gospels that do NOT have birth narratives. How do the authors of Mark and John introduce Jesus? What do they want us to understand about him?
We will spend the next couple of weeks looking at the gospels and the beginning of the New Testament or Christian Testament.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the gospels and the life/ministry of Jesus. It is important to understand that these are not the earliest or most raw accounts we have of Jesus’ life. In fact, Paul was our earliest New Testament writer and the most likely person to have actually met Jesus.
The gospels appear first because of their narrative structure, and they were given priority as the most thorough accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
They are not in chronological order themselves. Mark was the earliest gospel, probably written sometime around 66-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written somewhat later and almost certainly had the gospel of Mark available to them as they were writing their accounts (thus the many similarities and overlapping stories). The gospel of John was the last to be written, roughly around the turn of the first century and has relatively little in common with the other three in terms of content.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are the Synoptic gospels, each giving narrative account (“synopsis”) of Jesus’ life. John is quite different and does not take the same narrative approach.
It’s important to understand that no one was taking notes or making recordings as Jesus taught, healed, and traveled among the people. In that day, it was common for stories to be passed down by oral tradition and the stories of Jesus were no exception. Bear in mind that the literacy rate at this time in history was roughly zero, and everyday folks did not have access to paper, writing utensils or books. The bibles (Old Testament) in existence at that time would have been incomplete, meticulously copied on scrolls, and guarded carefully at the temple or synagogue to be read by an educated religious teacher.
All of the gospel accounts have come to scholars in fragments. We do not have a single, complete version of any of the gospels. Rather, fragments have been found over many years that have enabled scholars to piece together their best possible effort at a complete rendering of each book. There are many textual variants and differences between the various fragments, so biblical scholars do their very best to sort out copy errors (we can explain this) and determine which variations date to the earliest possible manuscript of each text.
General Talking Point(s):
Each gospel has a particular author, context, target audience and intent. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus a little differently, with a unique voice and with special things the author wishes us to understand about Jesus.
Often, it’s a waste of our energy to get very hung up on particular words or phrases because many have been subject to translation decisions and may even be one of several textual variants. Instead, we are wise to look at the “big picture” that each gospel paints about Jesus and to read each story for its “more-than-literal” meaning.
Podcast 16 – Birth Narratives & the Epiphany
Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1-20 & Matthew 1:18-2:12
Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain a birth narrative.
We tend to roll these two stories into one rather implausible narrative for our Christmas pageants and nativities, but we lose much of the significance of each story by doing so. Matthew is all about honor and establishing Jesus as the new Moses/king of the Jews. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is humble and is here for the humble, telling us a story in which shepherds are the first recipients of the good news.
These two gospels each contain a genealogy of Jesus, and they do not agree with each other. These genealogies are also part of the story, meant to establish Jesus’ lineage and tell readers something about his importance and place in history. They do not need to be understood literally or subjected to vain attempts to make them agree.
On Epiphany (often observed on the first Sunday in January), we essentially tell Matthew’s version of the story, in which wise persons from the East see a star in the sky and follow it to Jesus, bringing expensive gifts to honor him. These wise men travel right past King Herod (the real king at that time) to seek out Jesus, a story meant to establish Jesus as the king the people actually needed.
There are a number of elements of the birth narratives that are miraculous in nature, and some of these things have become stumbling blocks for contemporary readers. A good example is the notion of the virgin birth. In the interest of allowing folks to be fully informed, we must acknowledge that many powerful leaders at this time had virgin births attributed to them. It was written into the stories of kings and powerful people to establish their “special-ness” and give them an almost supernatural importance. We have to wrestle with whether the idea of the immaculate conception of Jesus was literally true or was a story told after his lifetime to establish his “special-ness” and tremendous importance to the people.
There are other elements of the birth narrative of Jesus that are questionable in their historicity. Though good records were kept at the time, there is no evidence that a census took place like the one described in Luke. It may have simply been a way to explain how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem instead of his hometown of Nazareth. There is no evidence that King Herod actually killed all the young boys under a certain age, an event that would undoubtedly have been recorded. In all likelihood, King Herod was unaware of Jesus’ birth. The story serves as a way for Matthew to tell us that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in direct opposition to the kings and kingdoms of this world.
Why have people combined all of the gospel material and attempted to make a single narrative about Jesus’ birth and early life? What do we lose by reading the stories this way?
If we take a look at Luke’s birth narrative, what does the author really want us to understand about Jesus? What about the author of Matthew? Are there truths that really hit home if we read each story on its own?
We just celebrated Epiphany, which means to “reveal,” and is the day we tell the story of the wise men. What are some of the truths Matthew wishes to convey with this story? What are some of the perceptions about the wise men that we have come to believe that are not in the gospels?
How does it feel to hear that some of the elements of our Christmas stories may not be literally (or factually) true? Does that really matter in terms of what we can learn about Jesus?
Why do you suppose Mark and John did not include birth narratives? Instead of supposing that they just forgot or didn’t care, what does the omission tell us about their understanding of Jesus?