Friday, February 16, 2007

Missions in the Country: Not what it Used to Be!

Over the past decade, the church has witnessed an increasing emphasis on urban ministry, and rightly so! Demographic studies reveal that masses of people are now moving back into our nation’s largest cities. In addition, the phenomenon known as “globalization,” the growing affinity that world class cities have with each other that makes New York City culturally more like Bejing that neighboring New York state suburbs, makes apparent the necessity of strategically targeting the city. Missiologists are correct when they say that if we can reach the cities, we will eventually reach the world!

But can we reach the cities by urban evangelism alone? While a cursory glance at the demographic landscape might suggest an affirmative answer, a deeper look at what is happening in the countrysides of North America puts to bed the notion that our rural and town and country churches have no place in reaching the world with the Gospel of Christ.

In my capacity at the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, I am witnessing these happenings first hand. Our association is comprised of 56 churches and church plants. Of that number, 19 are located in rural or town and country areas where rolling fields, silos and farms still outnumber tall buildings and bustling highways. Still, these areas have experienced much more change over the past several years than is immediately apparent, most of which has been caused by new residents who have moved into these areas. Want to take a guess where most of these new residents work? If you guessed the city, you guessed correctly! If we reach the cities, we reach the world. At the same time, reaching the city means reaching those who work there. Bottom line: Our rural churches are just as crucial as our suburban and urban churches are when it comes to reaching the city!

Regrettably, the appropriate focus of church growth literature on urban and suburban areas has resulted in town and country churches being largely neglected. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that most of our rural churches were started when the area around them was . . . .well, rural! Although the landscape still looks the same, the mindset of rural residents has changed dramatically over the past several years. Marty Giese, who has pastored churches in rural areas for over three decades, even suggests that the term “rural” may in fact be misleading. While it may still accurately reflect the geographic surroundings, it no longer describes the worldview and culture of many who now live there. As an alternative to the terms “rural” and “urban,” Giese suggests the use of the terms “agrarian” and “cosmopolitan.” Such terms can be used to accurately describe the mindset of the different kinds of people who now live in the country.

One real-life example of these differing mindsets would be my own home. I live in northwestern Howard Country Maryland, an area referred to by locals as “Western County.” Having grown up in a rural area, I am taking full advantage of living in an area that is largely still zoned for farming. I own chickens and my neighbors own horses. But while the area where we live is still rural, few of us now living in that area are “agrarian.” My next-door neighbor is a contractor for the Defense Department, specializing in anti-terrorism. Simply put, he doesn’t think like a farmer. While he lives in the country, his worldview is very cosmopolitan.

Another solemn reminder of this cultural clash comes by observing the influx into the countryside of the kind of societal ills that once only plagued the cities. Domestic violence, drug abuse, and a host of other “urban” problems are now just as prominent in our rural areas, and I have heard many of our pastors who minister in these areas testify to this fact.

The question then is how Pastors of churches in these changing rural environments can empower their congregations to more effectively reach the changing communities around them. Ephesians tells us that the pastor’s calling is to “equip” his people to minister effectively in their context. This calling, coupled with the above-described reality means that pastors in rural areas now bear an especially weighty responsibility! They must serve as a “cultural interpreter” between their congregation and the community. They require the capacity to lead their churches through the changes necessary to be effective, and they must be able to mobilize their people for outreach in this new context.

With this reality in view, denominational entities such as our Association should be about the task of helping equip and empower churches in the country. Regrettably, this is likely not the case for most denominational agencies. Two things currently impede denominations ability to provide what is needed. One of these is an appropriate focus on the cities that unintentionally minimizes those in rural areas. The other is that the methods currently used to equip rural pastors and churches are almost identical to those utilized a half-century ago. The cities aren't the only areas that require a new approach to ministry, and it is high time denominations who serve rural churches realize this.

For our part, this realization has resulted in a renewed focus on ministry and mission in "cosmorural" areas. Initiating this emphasis is a conference that we are sponsoring together with two neighboring associations called "Leading the Rurban Church." Our hope is that this conference will better equip our town and country pastors for this task. Dr. Marty Giese, a veteran rural pastor and author of a recent book on rural church ministry, will lead our sessions, and help us to learn from each other.

Our calling is to reach the world, and one of the reasons Associations and other denominational entities should exist is to combine our collective resources to do this more effectively. Currently, the best way for us to evangelize the world is to evangelize the city. But ironically, one of the best weapons we may have to accomplish this just might be our “country churches.”

Friday, February 02, 2007

What I Learned about Sex Education: From CMT

I knew that eventually, my eldest son and I would have to have "the conversation." But I never expected that conversation to be initiated by a Carrie Underwood video!

Although most Christian parents seek to shield their children from being exposed to adult themes too early, all of us slip up from time to time, usually by simply not paying attention. My slip up came a few weeks ago, on a laid-back Saturday morning. While helping my wife in the kitchen, the Saturday morning video line-up was playing on Country Music Television, giving us what any honorable red-neck would consider to be the ideal musical background for our activities.

Somewhere in that lineup was Carrie Underwood's newest video, which illustrated a story-driven song about her seeking revenge for the two-timing nature of her ex. My wife was unconsciously humming, and having seen the video before, I was lamenting the uneccesary pain she inflicted on the guy's ride (It really is a shame what she did to that truck!). Simultaneous to this, but unbeknownst to us, my oldest son was in the living room, hearing words that made no sense to him. A few seconds later, he rounded the corner into the kitchen to ask "Daddy, what is a 'tramp' and what does it mean to 'cheat'?"

Needless to say, that moment awakened me to the fact that my vigilance level needs to be ratcheted up a knotch or two when it comes to my kids. At the same time, I realized that children are being exposed to sexuality earlier than ever before. When 8-year-old girls are wearing shorts to school with "juicy" written across the backside, something is definitely wrong with our culture!

Over the next couple of weeks, my son and I had off-and-on conversations about sex, and through these conversations, I'd like to think I have learned a few things regarding how and when parents should talk to their children.

1. Bring it up sooner rather than later. My oldest is six. By most standards in the past, that would be way too early to have a conversation about sex. The problem is that in our current culture, by the time they are this age they have likely already been exposed to sexual themes, and been informed regarding sexuality by many other venues. And no matter how hard we try to shield them from this exposure, it simply cannot be avoided.

While conservatives rightly contend that sex education should be the responsibility of parents, often those same conservatives wait entirely too long to bring up the subject matter in their own homes. Let's face it: in most Christian households, by the time parents decide its time to talk about sex, the kids already know more than they do!

The first communication on this subject should come from Mom and Dad. If we seek to overcome the evil influence of our culture in this area, we have to beat it to the punch!

2. Communication about sex should be overwhelmingly positive. Clearly, the Biblical mandate concerning sex is that it only occur between one man and one woman who are married to each other. Unfortunately, this is the extent of most communication given to the children of evangelicals. To be sure, this boundary line should be marked clearly, but it should also be seen against the backdrop of God's overall intention regarding sexuality.

When educating their children, parents need to be clear from the start that sex is a gift from God. It is a good thing; in fact, it is a GREAT thing! It feels incredible and is designed to be the physical glue that ties husband and wife together in an even more intimate bond. Rather than portraying sex as something young men do to "lose their virginity," or as something that "de-flowers" our daughters, parents should celebrate this wonderful gift of God, and communicate their desire for their children to eventually have a fulfilling and God-glorifying sex life with their future spouses. Such is the background against which God's marital boundary around this gift can not only be clearly understood, but willingly embraced.

The marital bond should be portrayed by parents as something sacred, meaning that boys and girls learn respect for the opposite sex in light of their anticipated marriage. My son should learn to anticipate all the things he will one day share with his wife, and this same realization should result in the appropriate level of respect he should give to girls who may one day be someone else's wife.

3. Don't be crude, but do be frank. As a child, I was told that babies are created when a mommy and daddy "love" each other enough to create one. That being the extent of the conversation, I spent my early elementary school years trying hard to avoid "liking" a girl too much, lest she end up pregnant!

Parents should not only talk openly with their children about sex as a gift, but they should be accurate in describing what exactly sex is. This doesn't mean using crude language, or going into graphic detail with your six-year old. It does, however, mean clearly stating that sex is a physical activity. The conversation might even sound like this:

God designed a man's body and a woman's body so that they fit together. When this fit happens, it creates a really, really good feeling that God intended a husband and wife to feel for each other. God also created our bodies in such a way that when a man and woman have sex, their bodies together can make a third body, which is where babies come from.

A conversation like this isn't crude, but it is clear enough that a young child can understand what "sex" is. Such knowledge is not only useful for sex education, but also in the context of certain theological discussion. How can a young child actually believe in the virgin birth if he or she doesn't know what a "virgin" is? Contrary to the "sanitized" Sunday School definition of the term, a "virgin" is not neccesarily an unmarried woman! The present culture no longer allows for such a shallow understanding of this term.

Rest assured, if your kids first hear about sex from the culture, it will likely be crude. Our conversations about this subject don't have to be crude, but if our children are going to be properly equipped, they do have to be clear.

4. Parents should set the example for their kids regarding sex. Obviously, this statement is not intended to mean what it could mean! There are certain actions between husband and wife that without question should remain in the bedroom. Nevertheless, what happens in the bedroom often spills over into the other rooms of the house. In practical terms, this means that children should see mom and dad holding hands, hugging, kissing, flirting with each other, chasing each other around the house, and generally enjoying each other's company. Frankly, for this to happen in front of the kids with authenticity, mom and dad need to have a great sex life.

Young boys should be aware that dad is attracted to mom, and to mom alone! They should see in dad the sexual rewards that come from years of fidelity to one woman. By contrast, young girls should witness mom enjoying the kiss, the touch, the flirting. Once married, a woman should never hesitate to express herself in this way to her husband, and young girls will be much more likely to enjoy this good gift of God as married women, if a strong Biblical precedent is set by mom! Sure, from time to time kids will retch at watching mom and dad in this way, but isn't that part of the fun?

Perverted forms of sex abound in our culture. And as is the case with most other social issues, the problem isn't sex. The problems are the perverted forms of sex. Our children need a healthy, God-centered, Biblical model of sexuality, and they need it sooner than other children have in the past. If they don't get it from us, they will get the alternate version from someplace else.