Category Archives: Living Life

One way for Dads to shape their children’s future

In 1994, the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland did a survey on correlations between family activity and faith practices. The conclusion of the Swiss study was that the religious practices of the father of the family most determines the future of their children’s faith practices. Robbie Low, a minister in the Church of England and an editor of that church’s New Directions magazine, summarizes the findings as follows:

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.

If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.

What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.

Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.

Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith.

The results suggest that a father’s participation in the life of worship is extremely important in predicting a child’s adherence to the faith in adulthood. Granted, this was a Swiss study, not a US study. My early childhood included both my father and mother attending worship, but as I grew older, my mother attended worship more regularly than my father. Most of us, who think back to those who had the greatest impact on our faith, will most likely recall the spiritual mentorship of a mother, grandmother or aunt. That certainly was my experience.

Our culture has long sought to meet the unique needs and desires of people through fragmenting and categorizing us in groups by gender, interests, and age. The church has been following this same paradigm for decades. Women’s groups, men’s groups, and youth groups are assumed norms of the church, yet they find no precedence in Scripture and we are beginning to discover that such divisions are having a negative impact on future generations. This was not the case in the context of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Instructions for worship in both the Old and New Testaments assume the participation of men, women, and children in worship (see Deuteronomy 29:10-11; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Kings 22; Psalms 148:12; Joel 2:16; Luke 2:22-38). Children are influenced when they see their parents worshiping together. They watch us as we pray, assist in reading Scripture, pay attention to sermons and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In these moments, our children are witnessing the importance of faith and worship.

Many men may feel like matters of faith are best left to mothers and church staff, but after almost 50 years of increasingly absent fathers in matters of faith, our children are the ones paying the price. Children look to their parents to help them understand what is important in life. The number of men attending worship has continued to drop over the past several decades. It is time for the church to discern ways in which we may have pushed men to the background. Even the culture of the church has demanded less and less of our fathers and men, to “go easy” on them, which has pushed men out of good and right ways of spiritual leadership and service. On the other hand, placing blame isn’t helpful. My Brothers in Christ, you are essential to helping raise up the future generations of Christian men and women.

Children in Worship

A quote dubiously attributed to Mark Twain goes like this: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Lutheran Pastor Tim Wright created quite a firestorm in August 2014 when he released an article entitled, “Sunday Schooling our Kids Out of Church.”  I read his article with regret and angst. It described my education, experiences, and results of my almost 20 years of ministry perfectly.  You may access the article here:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/searchingfortomsawyer/2014/08/sunday-schooling-our-kids-out-of-church/

In short, the article reminds us of a profound shift that occurred in church almost 40 years ago.  For varying and debatable reasons, the church began to shift from kids worshiping with their parents in the normal, traditional worship service to extended services and children’s church that run concurrently.  Kids and their parents worshiped in separate spaces and in different styles.  The result? Tim Wright argues that we have raised the largest unchurched generation in the history of our country.  He goes on to identify that the generations that are now adults with kids of their own are, essentially, not assimilated into the life of either the congregation or the heritage of Christian worship.  They have no connection with the worship style, hymns, or rhythm of Scripture readings. Nor do they understand the culture of worship as active participation instead of receiving an aesthetically pleasing experience. In the church of my childhood, we boys endured the worship service sitting next to our parents while drawing war scenes on offering envelopes while the girls….well, I don’t know what the girls were dong. I was too busy drawing tanks and fighter jets on the pew offering envelope and bulletin cover.  While I was a student minister serving First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Millersburg, Kentucky, we only had one little boy around the age of 3 years old.  Granted, it was a small rural congregation of about 30 people, but during worship, the sanctuary doubled as the little boy’s playroom.  He would climb under pews, play with his trucks next to the Communion Table and from time to time, would come up and pull on my pant leg wanting me to pick him up.  I would reach down, pick him up and keep right on preaching.  No one ever complained.  A few years later, a family joined with a little girl. The attendance of children has doubled, and as a result of my experiences in seminary in worship and preaching classes, we decided to offer a Children’s Church for our two children.  Ironically, the seminary’s Christian Education professor was adamantly opposed to Children’s Church and Children’s Moments. She was, of course, ahead of her time.  Thankfully, after I graduated and moved away, the little church disbanded Children’s Church and both children are still active in the life of the church today.

A study in Switzerland discovered that 60 percent of children who do not worship with both of their parents in the “grown up” worship service will eventually fall away from the church.  Yet, studies like this one and others by Barna, Pew Research, and denominational research are all beginning to discover the profound importance of children having an experience in an intergenerational, “grown up” worship service.

At the church I serve, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, Kentucky, we are conscious that for many parents, the time in worship is an essential part of a Sabbath rest.  However, we also believe that children need to be integrated into the life of our community of faith.  This is one of the reasons we invite and encourage children in Kindergarten-2nd grade to worship with their families during the first portion of the service.  “But children are bored and they don’t get anything out of it.”  I understand…and remember. But, I am finding that, like Mark Twain, our parents and grandparents in the faith may be astonishingly smarter than we first thought.

Feeling depressed? Apathetic?

Each week, I receive 3-4 phone calls from folks who are not members of the church I serve looking for pastoral counseling. Generally, they begin with, “Pastor, I am depressed and was wondering if we could meet.” For many of these people, their income does not permit them to seek out a licensed counselor or psychologist. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even an accredited family counselor. My reflections should not be heard as a definitive word from an expert, but I’ve talked to many people over the past 22 years of ordained ministry. Depression is a serious issue. All of us go through times of feeling down or unmotivated. Not to discount anyone’s experiences, it is a rather normal part of life and will generally pass. Long-term or chronic depression really requires professional help and may need the attention of medical and/or psychiatric professionals. However, for many of the folks with whom I meet, I wonder if they are accurately describing their situation. Are they really depressed?

This may be a bit off-color for some of our readers, but it is an excellent example of how we confuse our symptoms. Years ago, a friend of mine went to his family physician and told him that he was suffering from constipation. In actuality, his symptom was diarrhea. You can imagine how poorly he responded to his physician’s treatment plan. As his symptoms worsened, he called his physician and explained his plight. His physician asked him if he was sure that his original condition was constipation. On discovering the truth, he asked my friend, “Why didn’t you just tell me that you were suffering from diarrhea?” My friend responded, “I don’t like that word. Constipation didn’t sound so embarrassing.”

Like any good physician, asking the right questions and getting honest answers helps diagnose the problem and determine the appropriate treatment. Here are some questions I ask folks who will too often grow impatient with my line of inquiry.

What are you planning to do tomorrow? Depressed people rarely have goals. Apathetic people will have goals, important goals. That doesn’t mean they are meeting their goals. In many cases, they may sense that their goals are unattainable, unwanted by others or that their confidence in their own abilities to reach those goals has taken a beating. These feelings will often lead to a loss of hope and excitement about the future. In the worst cases, they can lead to existential questions about worth, value, a perceived sense of inability to contribute to their family, job or community. This can lead to depression, but it is not depression, it’s apathy. So, where are you? What are you planning to do tomorrow…next week…next year?

Do you trust your family, your boss, your co-workers, your customers? Trust is a powerful tool in helping us to live a stable, and consequently, a productive life. If we don’t have a sense of trust in our lives, it can lead to apathy. When we don’t trust ourselves, our plans or our co-workers, our subconscious mind will actually set into motion certain responses to protect our emotions. The emotion of apathy is one of those defensive mechanisms. If you don’t think what you are going to do will work or that no one will support you, you simply stop caring. That way, if, or when, you or your plan fails, you won’t suffer as severely emotionally.

In many cases, what most of us are experiencing isn’t depression, it’s apathy. Feeling apathetic is a good sign. It literally means “away from the spirit.” You can still get close to the spirit again. You still have some fight left in you. Begin to move against your emotion of apathy and back to the spirit. Break down your plans into smaller steps and push forward. As you experience some success, your subconscious mind will begin to trust you again. Overcoming apathy isn’t about looking in the mirror and giving yourself a pep talk, it’s about doing something. Change your plan, seek out the advice of friends, learn a new skill, ask God to guide your steps. Incidentally, everything here holds true for both individuals and groups…especially congregations.

Moment of Mercy

“Moment of Mercy”
Civil War Museum Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 was one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The Confederate Army had taken positions behind stone walls along Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights.  Federal troops made repeated frontal assaults against the wall.  In five hours, over 6,300 Union troops lay dead or wounded.  As evening approached, snow began to fall and the temperature dropped to below zero.  One Union Commander was so tormented by the cries of wounded soldiers for water and mercy, he wrote in his journal, “My ears were filled with cries and groans of the wounded, and the ghastly faces of the dead almost made a wall around me.”

By the afternoon of the following day, a 19-year-old Sergeant, Richard R. Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, could take it no longer.  With the permission of his commander, he filled as many canteens as he could, hurdled the wall and ran to the aid of Union soldiers.  The Federal lines began to take shots at the Confederate until they saw that his mission was one of mercy.  The Union Commander shouted to his troops, “Don’t shoot that man, he’s too brave to die.” For 90 minutes the battlefield was quiet, both sides observing a solemn truce as the good Samaritan ministered to enemy wounded soldiers, which was later characterized in the sculpture “Moment of Mercy” on display at the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The plaque beneath the sculpture describes the character of those dark years: “Soldiers in blue and soldiers in gray repeated this incident many times through the Civil War. This Moment of Mercy sculpture pays homage to them and the uniquely American spirit of aiding those in need.”

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”  In ancient times, mercy could be found in various instances on the battlefield.  The scenario would begin with the decisive victory of one army over another.  The Commanding Officer of the conquered forces would present himself before the Commander of the victors, kneel, bow his head and present his sword.  It was a sign of complete surrender.  In many instances, but not all, the victorious commander would show mercy, allowing him to live.  In the best cases, the victor would allow the vanquished to return to their homes and families with the promise to never take up arms again.  Such mercy was one of the basic tenets of chivalry.

It is this understanding of mercy that informs the Christian tradition. God is victorious over sin and death. We, recognizing that living our life for our own glory is an act of rebellion, surrender to Christ. In our surrender, God is merciful and makes us alive.  This gift motivates us, in turn, to show mercy to all whom we meet. Are you wounded? Christ is hurtling the walls of sin and death to bring to you the water of life.  Are you in a state of rebellion? God is merciful. Surrender to the King of kings and let Christ make you alive.

Revolutionary Preachers

My colleague at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, the Rev. Larry Sivis,  is a huge Revolutionary War buff. Recently, he loaned me a 2-volume set entitled Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Click on the title to link to our books section. To purchase books, click on the cover to go to Amazon). Notable 19th-century author and lawyer, John Wingate Thornton, credited the pulpit of the Puritan church (the forebear of many Congregational churches today) for giving the moral force to the Revolution.

The Rev. Benjamin Colman
Congregational Church

The first sermon in the book is by the Rev. Benjamin Colman, the irascible pastor of Boston’s Brattle Street Church.  Colman’s sermon, entitled Government, the Pillar of the Earth, was, in essence, a lecture to the Governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher, about the Biblical responsibilities of those in Government to both lend support and beauty to culture.

The Rev. John Wesley
Anglican Church

Likewise, the volume contains a sermon entitled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, by John Wesley, the Anglican minister credited with the founding of Methodism.  His sermon outlined why the colonies should accept taxation by the British Parliament and that the freedom the colonists enjoyed in matters of faith and the safety the British military provided were reasons enough to submit to the Crown and Parliament.  Needless to say, American Methodists regularly rounded up copies of this sermon and promptly burned them, fearful that his loyalty to the crown would inhibit their evangelistic work.

The Rev. John Mitchell Mason
Reformed Church

The Rev. John Mitchell Mason, pastor of the Scotch Street Presbyterian Church and founder of the famed Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City, preached a sermon entitled, The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States. His sermon was a defense for opposition to the election of Thomas Jefferson as President.  Mason believed that Jefferson was unqualified to be President because of his unorthodox opinions on matters of the Christian faith and calls Jefferson a “confirmed infidel.”

The irony is that most of these clergymen were also strong supporters of freedom of religion.  Though it may be that theirs was nowhere near as diverse as our modern context, these preachers were able to maintain strong opinions while defending the rights of every person’s free exercise in matters of faith.  This defense did not soften their resolve to articulate their own worldview in a way that was both compelling and persuasive.  In some cases, this preaching led notable figures like Noah Webster, the man who edited the first comprehensive dictionary, to become committed to the church. The point of these historical summaries is to encourage us to balance a commitment to the evangelistic zeal of our faith while, at the same time, remain open to both our own growth and the freedom of expression of others.

This is the strength of Mainline Protestantism in general and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically.  We are expected to hold fast to the core of our beliefs and remain respectful and open to dialogue.  Such debate has strengthened and informed our concept of freedom. It can be painful, but it is in the midst of passionate, well-articulated positions argued persuasively (classically defined as “rhetoric”) that will also strengthen the church.  It needs to be a part of every congregation as well. Unfortunately, congregations are becoming sub-cultures of like-minded individuals rather than the community whose faith is rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.  As Christians, our unity is neither rooted in our shared socio-political opinions nor in the freedom of self-determination. That is, we are not united by who we are, but by whose we are.  We belong to Christ. Christ is the host when we are invited to His Table. Each human being is different. There will always be someone more liberal or more conservative than we are. There will always be someone who says that we aren’t liberal enough or conservative enough. We hold fast to the Good Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Along with a commitment to the Creed of Christ, the church has believed and taught that a return to the Christian discipline of prayer is essential.  True unity comes through personal and corporate prayer.  Our connection with God through the gift of prayer not only opens us to God’s work of molding our minds but opens our hearts to fellow believers and to those in our community who have not met Jesus Christ in a powerful and real way.

Perhaps, evangelistic zeal and the courage to carry the light of Christ into the shadows of a divided world begins with prayer. It may seem that I’m claiming the same privilege of the Revolutionary Orations of our forebears, but let me declare this: We will make no substantive headway until God’s people begin their apologetic efforts with the humility of prayer and service.

-Dr. Ike Nicholson is the Senior Minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The essence of Christianity…in less than a “tweet”

We live in an age of 140 characters.  That is how many characters one is allowed to use in a tweet on Twitter.  Modern day cultural sociologists point to the development of social media as one reason that we are fast becoming a culture that wants everything boiled down to the bare minimum.  Ideas and the communication of ideas need to be done quickly and efficiently.  According to some of my friends who live in the Eastern part of the world, this is proving especially troublesome.  The Chinese language has over 54,678 characters, of which 2,600 are essential to effective communication.  Before we gasp in despair, the English language boasts an estimated 1,025,109 different words with about 600,000 in regular use.  Greek, the language of the New Testament, has over 5 million different words.  Researchers tell us that the average human, for whom English is a first language, has mastered and regularly uses about 100,000 different words to communicate.  That means we are expected to use less than 1/10% of our total capacity to communicate.  Like your coaches, teachers, and parents always said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Many bloggers, religious commentators, and preachers try to summarize the essence of Christianity.  Isn’t Christianity all about loving our neighbors and even loving our enemies?  Certainly, all of us can attest to the ultimate reality of living with hate in our hearts.  Hating or not loving others is a tomb.  Tombs are not the place for Christians.  When we hate others we are allowing our fears to control our lives.  We feed that fear with constant attention and the inability to live into the calling of a resurrection people.

Isn’t Christianity all about forgiveness?  Yes! There is a kind of resurrection that happens in our life when we easily forgive.  For those of us living under a failure to be forgiven or inability to receive forgiveness, it can be a very dark and confining place in which to live.  Of course, the sin of hurtful statements or deeds can change the dynamics of a relationship, but an unwillingness to forgive and accept forgiveness is itself a disease that robs us of the joy of life.  Our minds become consumed with brokenness rather than the relief of healing and forgiveness.

Isn’t Christianity all about healing?  Yes, most definitely!  Physical illness, mental torture, and addiction are stone tombs that coax us into a state where we define the world by our pain.  Being healed is not just a relief of suffering, but it is a suggestion of possibilities.  The New Testament always joins the relief of pain to an opportunity of new life, an occasion to service and a moment to consider new possibilities for a life reclaimed.

Of course, none of these answers are really given justice in 140 characters.  Especially since the true essence of Christianity is about following Jesus.  Christianity is about becoming a disciple of Christ.  Like the first disciples, following Christ introduces us to love, forgiveness and healing.  It is a whole new way of living life.  Rising out of the waters of baptism is the moment when we step out of the tomb with Jesus.  It is the moment when we are introduced to what it means to be a Christian.  It is a new way of doing everything.  It is a new way of being.  It is a new way of thinking.  It is a vastly new perspective on the possibility of living a life that glorifies God, honors Christ and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  It is a new life.  Unfortunately, that description is way over the 140 characters allowed.

“Christianity is all about leaving the tomb with Jesus.” That was only 55 characters. Does that work?

Christ leads us into life.