September 19, 2016
Few seemingly neutral realities today claw for our hearts like sports and athletics.
Many Christians aren’t allured in the least by spectator sports. God bless you. But for those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and also get hyped about our favorite teams, we need a regular soul-check. And especially at the onset of football season.
Sports and athletic competitions are good gifts from God, but we dare not go all-in without our eyes wide open. Not in this culture. Sport is one of the most alluring, and subtle, competitors for our heart’s deepest allegiance.
“Watching football has become deeply religious for millions.” Tweet Share on Facebook
Our favorite teams are not just after our wallets; they’re after our hearts with every detail of carefully constructed game-day liturgy — from tailgating to cheers and chants, fight songs and the national anthem, concessions and fireworks, the rhythms and habits of what it means to be a fan. Watching football has become deeply religious for millions, and for the Christian, becoming aware of the draw that our favorite teams have on us is not meant to spoil our sanctified enjoyment, but to preserve it.
And college and professional football have a particularly powerful effect on its faithful. I confess, I’m excited about the new professional football stadium in town — and even more excited about my favorite college team — and I want to save myself, and those I love, the long-term grief of my being unhealthily engaged.
Seventy Thousand Worshipers
For years, we Minnesotans have been looking forward to this weekend. Our pro-football Vikings play their first regular-season game in the new billion-dollar stadium in downtown Minneapolis — and against our rivals from one state over, the Green Bay Packers.
The new stadium sits on the same site where the Metrodome sat for more than thirty years. The dome was a sight in its day; now the new house dwarfs it. Word is the old Metrodome could fit fully inside the new stadium without even touching its walls or roof.
Beginning two and a half years ago, we watched as demolition workers deflated the dome, imploded her walls, and carried away the pieces to clear the site. Then for months on end, we have seen the new structure rise, higher and huger than we thought was possible for a stadium. The new structure is so massive and imposing that it’s seemed to some of us who frequent that part of town (Bethlehem Baptist is only a couple blocks away) as if an invading army is building the siege works to conquer our city.
Now the edifice is complete, and this Sunday chiseled soldiers in helmets and shoulder pads will come streaming in to the deafening roar of 70,000 worshipers.
And if the cheapest ticket this weekend wasn’t going for $200, I’d be eager to be in attendance. As a sports enthusiast, I’m excited. But as a Christian, the pomp and extravagance of it all is eye-opening, and serves as a reminder to keep my fickle heart in check.
What Is Your Temple?
There was a Colosseum in ancient Rome too, completed in A.D. 80, as the sect of the Nazarenes was emerging from Judaism and becoming what we know today as Christianity. This veritable temple to humanity towered over the building-less fledging church of the first century, which met in homes and faced increasing persecution. Some Christians even died as spectacles in the stadium, chewed up in the entertainment juggernaut of the Colosseum.
Today that Colosseum stands in ruins. The church it once dwarfed now has more than a billion members worldwide, and stands ten thousand times taller in the world today. And it will be infinitely more significant in the age to come.
Our team, and our new stadium, and each weekend’s big game can feel so significant in the moment. They tug at our heart strings. They yank. Victory can make us unfittingly happy, while defeat unsuitably drags us down. At these junctures — and perhaps every weekend during football season — it is wise to ask ourselves how much this derivative reality is calling the plays in our hearts. What is the biggest temple of our affections? Where is our worship? What captures our idle thoughts? Because what captures our idle thoughts threatens to be the idol of our hearts.
“What captures our idle thoughts threatens to be the idol of our hearts.” Tweet Share on Facebook
How much am I building my life around my favorite team and its games, and what important things in life are suffering because of this growing priority? Am I getting so attached to this team and to this season that I’m neglecting much more important realities like family, friends, work, studies, and most significantly the stirring of my heart for Jesus? Am I closer to him because of sports, or are the games subtly moving me away by eclipsing him in my heart?
If you’re with me in often feeling the unrighteous pull of sports and athletics on your heart, you may need to withdraw and take a break. I’ve done that before, and may do it again. But that also can be the easy way out. God is indeed the giver of every good gift, but no gift is truly good apart from him.
We don’t enjoy his gifts most by intercepting them and running the other direction, but by letting their unique joys and thrills lead us back to him — the greatest joy and the truest glory. That may not mean we say a prayer before every down and sing a hymn after every score, but the full life is a Godward life — Godward in our marriages and families, Godward in our work, Godward even in our rest and entertainment. When Jesus is our greatest treasure, then football can find its good, chastened, and truly enjoyable place.
With holy resolve and the help of the Spirit, we will not let the biggest temple in town become our temple as well.
September 10, 2016
“The NFL is the ‘new’ Gladiator games, and we are the ‘new’ mob–we are letting our freedoms slip away under the ‘new’ Emperor. ‘I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob, conjure magic for them and they will be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate it’s the sand of the Colosseum. He will bring them death and they will love him for it.’”
August 26, 2016
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. – Psalm 127:3-5
August 16, 2016
Robert from Columbia, South Carolina writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I’m wondering if there are situations in which a separate children’s time — in Sunday school rooms, completely apart from the Sunday gathering — are necessary. Our church is wrestling through this issue, as many families have infants, some have wandering and noisy toddlers, there are rambunctious 5 year olds, and we have three children of varying ages with special needs (like autism and Down Syndrome). The struggle is: Most parents want a break and thus desire the separate time for children while the adult service is going on, yet the children workers wish they were in the adult service and feel limited in their ability to control the behavior of the children. What should we do?”
I hope there is a strong leader in your church because weak leaders will never be able to stand up against the onslaught of criticism that is going to come if you try to do what I am going to suggest. When I came to Bethlehem as a pastor in 1980, one of the first issues I had to deal with was about the children in worship. We didn’t have a lot of them, but they were starting to come. And the people all wanted to know, what are we going to do? Are we going to have children’s sermon in the middle, the little three-minute delay where the children walk to the front? Are we going to have children’s church and then they come back in, maybe, if they don’t disappear when they are 13? Or what are we going to do?
So, my wife, Noel, and I teamed up. We haven’t done this quite like this since. We teamed up because we both felt unbelievably strongly about this, and we staked our lives on it. We teamed up and wrote a paper for our people arguing that we not have children’s church and that we not have a mini-children’s sermon in the service, but that parents or other responsible adults — if kids don’t have Christian parents — bring their children to the service after about four years old. We provided a nursery until then and eventually those nurseries, I put it in quotes, “became very God-focused and nurturing times to help get little children oriented on God and ready to go with mom and dad to the big service.”
That article that we wrote is at the Desiring God website. It is called, The Family: Together in God’s Presence. And I am going to quote from it, but I am going to leave off the very thing everybody wants to know; namely, how do you control kids? And that is the part my wife wrote. And so, if what I say here is at least provocative enough to get your interest, then go to the website and search for the article and read what my wife had to say about that. But I think really the big issue is concepts of worship and concepts of parenting and concepts of how things are transmitted to kids.
So, let me just give a few thoughts from that article. God-centered worship is supremely important in family life and in the life of the church. We approached Sunday morning worship hour in my 33 years in the pastorate with tremendous seriousness and earnestness and expectancy. And don’t hear those words as contrary to joy. Think serious joy. Think deep joy. We were and are a happy people at Bethlehem. We tried to banish, however, all that is flippant and trivial and chatty and chipper. I just abominate chipper worship services. Not all services had this flavor. Sunday morning we called the Mount of Transfiguration, meaning, an awesome place of glory where you fall on your face almost speechless in the presence of God. And Sunday evening — or Wednesday evening or whatever else you do — is the Mount of Olives, which was the familiar spot where Jesus probably lay down, put his hand on his elbow, and talked things over with his disciples. That is utterly crucial in the church as well.
“The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish their own worship.”
We didn’t have a children’s sermon as part of the Sunday morning service. We believed that even though it might be fun for the kids, in the long run it would weaken the spiritual intensity of our worship. To everything there is a season (see Ecclesiastes 3:1). That is so crucial. People think you have got to put everything in the Sunday morning service or take it out. It seemed to us that for at least one hour a week out of 168 we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence. Now I am going to say that again, because I really like that phrase: a sustained maximum intensity of moving reverence. And our arguments for bringing children to worship, of course, will only carry weight with parents who really love that, who really love to meet God in worship and really want their kids to get that and grow up breathing that air. The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship. They don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad loves being here.
So, the first and most important job of a parent is to fall in love with the worship of God. Any sense of being there out of duty or being forced to or some other reason besides I love being here, kids know that and they will hate it just like you do, deep down. You can’t impart what you don’t possess. And this is what you want your children to catch. You want them to catch authentic worship. Authentic, heartfelt worship is the most valuable thing in human experience. Think of it. The cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with mom and dad in authentic communion with God and his people between the ages of 4 and 17 is utterly incalculable.
The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week. What would be the impact if, for twelve years, the children saw dad with his face in his hands praying during the prelude to worship? What would be the impact if they saw mom and dad beaming with joy in singing the praises of God? Just think of it. Millions and millions of children never see their parents sing, let alone sing songs with joy to a great God. Something really seems wrong to me when parents want to take their children in the most formative years and put them with other children and other adults to shape their attitude and behavior in worship rather than having them right there to shape them. Why wouldn’t parents be jealous to model for their children the tremendous value that they put on joyful reverence in the presence of almighty God?
Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head. They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day that they don’t understand 90% of in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.
And this is true even if they say they are bored. Music and words become familiar. The message of the music starts to sink in. The form of the service starts to feel natural. Even if most of the sermon goes right over their heads, experience has shown that children hear and remember remarkable things. The content of the prayers and the songs and the sermon gives parents unparalleled opportunity to teach their children the great truths of the faith. What an opportunity. If parents would only learn to query their children after the service and then explain things to them, it would become enormously valuable for their long-term growth in the knowledge of God.
There is a sense of solemnity and awe which children should experience in the presence of God. They should sense this is a sacred moment, a sacred place. This is not likely to be happening in children’s church. And unfortunately it is not likely to happen in many adult services that put a high premium on horizontal chatter, chatter, chatter rather than vertical joy. The aim is to awaken them to the greatness and majesty of God, not just his tenderness and familiarity.
So, those are some of the thoughts of why it is so valuable to have children in worship. There is so much more to be said, especially about the kind of parenting and discipline at home that make all of this possible. But you can go to the article for that and see what Noel and I wrote about discipline. The bottom line is heartfelt, passionate encounters with the living God in worship should be the greatest desire of a parents’ heart. And there is no better place or time to impart this than with mom and dad doing it together with the children in worship.
August 16, 2016
2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. – Habakkuk 1:2-5
July 22, 2016
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
July 17, 2016
The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.
July 14, 2016
“The primary function of prayer is not to accomplish your will but to commune with God.”
July 9, 2016
We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.
July 8, 2016
Wherever you are, be all there!