Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Massive Social Phenomenon

A Massive Social Phenomenon

It used to be that first-time married couples and their children were the norm in society and the church focused its ministry on them while (in the best instances) also acknowledging the special dynamics and ministry needs of singles, the divorced, single parents, remarried couples, and blended families. Those days are gone.

In an outstanding article in this month’s Christianity Today (“Redeeming the Remarried: There’s a lot at stake if we neglect ministering to stepfamilies,” October 2007), Ron Deal, who has done two seminars at West Houston and is president of Successful Stepfamilies (, notes the following demographic realities:

Half of all children in the U.S. will have a stepparent during their lifetime.

  • 40% of women are predicted to either be a stepparent or be married to one at some point.
  • Approximately 30% of weddings in America today give birth to a stepfamily.
  • The percentage of first-marriage nuclear family homes in America is 23% and functional stepfamily homes is 25-30%. Single-parent or single-adult households make up the remaining half.
  • First marriage nuclear families are the exception, not the norm, in the United States. As Deal notes, “This massive social phenomenon represents millions of people who need ministry from the church.”

Another demographic change suggests churches have been slow to adapt. Between 1972-2002, the percentage of Americans attending church or synagogue on any given weekend declined from 41% to 31%. In other words, as churches focused on nuclear families, and nuclear families declined as a percentage of the population, lower (relative) church attendance was a natural result. As Deal puts it, “For a multitude of reasons, divorced and remarried people frequently find themselves disconnected from God and marginalized from the church.”

The church understandably has been torn between, on the one hand, holding onto its conviction that life-long marriage is God’s ideal and divorce is a sin, and on the other hand, offering compassion, support, and ministry to people whose marriages fail. Deal notes that this tension, though, is at the heart of the gospel. “Sinners really can receive forgiveness and acceptance, despite their pasts. When it comes to most other sins, the church has long realized that it can be pro-hospital without being pro-illness. Remarriage does not diminish God’s intent for the home any more than a ministry to alcoholics encourages drinking.”

This is not a zero-sum game. I believe it is Biblically faithful to offer resources, teaching, support and encouragement to couples to stay married and thrive, while also pursuing similar ministry to people who are divorced, remarried, or in blended families.

The heart of the gospel calls Christians to holiness and obedience while acknowledging our weakness and failures. The church is both a hospital for sinners and a training camp for saints – single, married, divorced, and remarried.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In the Script

Angela and I noted recently how many of the new movies have an R-rating. Many of these are aimed at younger audiences, including teenagers, so it strikes us as being counter-productive to make them inaccessible (legally, anyway) to part of their target audience. This intrigues me because many years ago I heard the movie critic and cultural commentator Michael Medved convincingly explain that the big movie studios often knowingly forsake revenue by making more R-rated movies. In other words, PG movies historically have made more money than R movies, yet the studios don’t take advantage of this financial “sweet spot.” Medved suggests that, hard as it may be to believe, the studios, who are beholden to stockholders for their financial performance, yet are willing to forsake income to push the edges of the cultural tolerance envelope.

This is not to assert that there is a cabal of studio execs strategically planning an assault on prevailing standards of decency and taste. But it is to claim, according to Medved, that there is a prevailing culture, if you will, in the entertainment industry which seeks to repudiate traditional Judeo-Christian values, particularly in matters of sexual mores.

Last year, Angela and I saw a wonderful little movie, Little Miss Sunshine, that was thoughtful, funny, and nuanced. It was a perfect family movie, except for a 10-minute raunchy sequence that earned it an R-rating. We were incredulous that a studio would shoot itself in the foot like that. It was a critical success but could have been far more commercially profitable and widely seen. This is just one example of Medved’s claim.

Listen to the words of another cultural commentator, who advocates that people train themselves in the development of moral character through the daily choices of what they watch, read, and participate in.

Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.

These are the words of the second century Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. You see, friends, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Epictetus was not a Christian. But Christians of all people should take seriously our moral development. As another cultural commentator of sorts, the apostle Paul, puts it, “Train yourself in godliness, for while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (I Timothy 4:7-8).

In the hilarious movie “Freaky Friday,” the mother yells a last admonition at her teenage daughter after dropping her off at high school one morning, “Make good choices!!!” Jamie Lee Curtis later revealed in an interview that she ad-libbed that line; it wasn’t in the script.

But it should be in ours.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Causing Togetherness

Now that the Soper family has two teenagers, including one who drives and works part-time after school, we find ourselves working harder to guard our meal times together. This is borne out of the memories Angela and I have of consistent family meal times (mainly dinner) growing up, not to mention the wealth of social science research which shows a direct correlation between families who eat together and the general well-being (including less likelihood of drug use, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity) of the children. Now granted, correlation is not causation. Just because two things are related does not mean one causes the other. If there is a correlation between the Astros losing at home and rainy days in Houston, this does not mean that rain causes the Astros to lose. The Astros lose because they stink (this year). But the correlation between meal times and family togetherness and well-being is powerful and intriguing. It borders on causation.

A friend of mine in Los Angeles listened as a young neighbor who was home from college exclaimed at how much she enjoyed eating with her friends in the school cafeteria. She marveled at how satisfying it was to mix conversation over a meal with people she cared about. My friend asked her, “Didn’t you ever experience that with your family?” The young lady replied sadly that her family rarely sat down for a meal together at home. They all helped themselves to food and ate in front of the television, in separate rooms, or at different times. The home kitchen was like a fast-food walk-thru.

Someone recently mentioned that he has a burden for rich white kids. Say again? Aren’t rich white kids (re: teenagers) the ones who have it all: cars and cell phones and lots of independence? Exactly. Their “independence” often ends up isolating them from their parents, who are all too content for the family to be busy (productively so, of course; this is America) and disconnected. So, this man has a burden for busy, materially well-supplied but lonely kids from intact but disconnected families who inside ache for togetherness and family closeness and would gladly give up many of their activities and toys to be closer to their parents and siblings, though they would never tell their parents that. But they do tell their therapist, youth minister, or school counselor.

Why did Jesus spend so much time sharing meals with people? Why did he get so much flak for his meal associations? Jesus intentionally shared meals with people because to share a meal is to invest yourself in the relationship, to establish connection, to break down walls, to convey commitment and interest. Thus, Jesus leaves his followers a meal to celebrate together each week. Not a drive-by wafer and juice pick-up, but a shared meal in his memory gathered at the table as part of our worship together.

Friends, fold up your TV trays. Clear the dinner table of its clutter. Simplify your calendars. Do you really need to be in all those activities? Are they just a smoke-screen for relational laziness? Establish your meal times. If not every night, then three or four or five nights per week. Couples without children and empty-nesters, you too! Something happens when we eat together. Meals correlate with relational well-being. They cause togetherness. They are a beautiful part of the Christian life.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Take Every Thought Captive

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he uses intriguing language when he says “we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (10:5, NRSV). What in the world does that mean? Often we associate this with having the personal and spiritual discipline to sanctify our thoughts so as not to sin by them, as in, “I will not imagine putting my boss in a cauldron of boiling water.

But in this context Paul is referring to certain teachers who have captivated the Corinthians by their slick philosophical reasoning that runs counter to the message of the crucified Christ and which actually diminishes the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16). Paul uses the most elaborate military imagery in all his letters to depict the seriousness with which he takes this threat. He speaks of “the weapons of our warfare” which have “the divine power to destroy strongholds” (10:4). This latter metaphor refers to the tactics of siege warfare as practiced in the Greco-Roman world (see also Luke 19:43-44), wherein an army surrounds a city and slowly crushes it. The Message puts it this way:

We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ (10:4-5).

The Christian faith has always called people to engage both their hearts and minds in the life of following Jesus. Recently it seems like the heart is getting the most attention: doctrine is out, devotion is in; learning is boring, experience is exciting. But as important as heart devotion is, we must also fortify our minds. Paul urges Timothy repeatedly, for example, to focus on “sound teaching” in the church in Ephesus, for sound teaching begets healthy Christ-followers. Indeed, the word for “sound” throughout I & II Timothy and Titus is a word associated with medicine and health. Thin theology and sloppy teaching makes for sick Christians. That is why Paul speaks of being “nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching” (I Timothy 4:6, NRSV).

On October 19-20, West Houston will host our first ever worldview conference, called “Truth and Consequences: Improving Your World and Life View.” A “worldview” is the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts in it. Think of it as the assumptions and perceptions that form your understanding of life and by which you apply your Christian faith. The reason a person’s worldview is so important is because it is the roots from which our convictions and actions spring. Beneath the cultural arguments having to do with euthanasia, abortion, and capital punishment, for instance, lie significant worldview differences and considerations. These are the kinds of things the conference speakers will address.

Many Christians cannot really articulate what they believe, or why they consider Jesus to embody truth, or how their Christian faith informs their opinions on pressing cultural and political issues. Yet Paul exhorts Christ-followers to “
not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is…” (Romans 12:2, NIV). Robust faith includes a renewed mind, taken to heart.