The Church’s Uncoupled Teaching Problem

My last two posts I’ve been responding to a post from Relevant that Scott Sauls wrote dealing with the Church and its focus on the nuclear family and lack of focus on singles.  I want to respond to one last part today.

I want to restate that I’m not trying to pick on Scott or attack him in any way.  I appreciate that he is at least identifying that there is a problem in our evangelical culture when it comes to this issue.  I also believe that he represents where a lot of people in our circle are at.  That is, they see there is a problem, but they don’t realize how deep it is and that a lot of the assumptions they are making are actually deeply flawed.

In the last post we looked at the idea that God will either bring you someone or He won’t and if you aren’t married then He just hasn’t done so yet.  I actually think the main reason that Scott brought this up is not so much to offer a terrible platitude to singles but to try to say that unmarried folks can have just as rich of walk with Jesus as married folks.  Let me say a huge Amen to that.

I think more and more church leaders are waking up to that idea.  However, the way in which they view that unmarried life is lacking and it is a huge reason we have all the confusion that we have.  So let me respond to that here.

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The Nuclear Family Or Kingdom Family

A few people in the church starting to wake up to the fact that the cultural context has changed.  Not only that but some are even beginning to see that they are part of the problem because of the ways they’ve handled that.  I myself have admitted many times here that I’ve taught many things wrong through the years – and I was teaching it as a single person.

Now the majority of the church has yet to even roll over, let alone wake up.  But it is encouraging to see some movement.  Over a couple of blog posts I want to sort of encourage (read challenge, push, bother, implore) them to not just offer band aids or think that a few simple thoughts are going to solve this.  If you are a pastor/elder/leader type person, you need to know that it’s going to be slower and more all encompassing than you think.

My fear for this discussion is that churches who are starting to see the problem of having family as an idol or not doing well with singles will only look to give simple answers that won’t actually unmask the deeper assumptions and mistakes that we have made and/or are making with this topic.  Changing what we say won’t be enough. We have to go back and rethink the whole thing to have a chance.

As an example of this I want to respond to parts of an article written by Scott Sauls for Relevant.  Let me be clear – I’m not coming at Scott.  I don’t know him personally but know folks who do and I’ve heard only great things about him.  I also want to give him a lot of credit for writing about this.  He is obviously way ahead of the curve which is apparent in much of what he writes.

I’m simply using his post as a launching pad to challenge some of the things that I believe the leaders in his, and similar circles, seem to assume.

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We All Need Touch

About 15 years ago my brother and I went to a Rick Springfield concert.  I can’t believe I just typed that.  You have to understand that I was a child of the 80’s and Rick, was well, sort of awesome.  He had 17 top 20 hits.  He was smooth with the lines and the ladies.  So anyway in 2000 or so, long after he was cool, he was in concert to promote a new album that of course no one actually bought.

At any rate there we were at Station Casino and it’s packed (meaning there were like a thousand people there. . . maybe).  Rick steps up on stage, and forgets the words to his opening song.  Haha. Then he says, “I sort of forgot the words there, but it’s ok.  I feel I’m among friends tonight.”  The “crowd” roared.  From then he was on fire.  Flawless as he belted out the tunes as we sang along.

At one point, he starts to sing one of those top 20 hits called The Human Touch.  “We all need the human touch.  We all need it. . . I need it too”.  Then he went out into the crowd and began hugging people and giving high fives.  My brother and I died laughing as we watched a 40 year old woman run screaming to a friend, “He touched me! He touched me!.”

I know at this point you are wondering why I’m sharing this story, but I share it because I think we actually do need human touch and as a single person it can be hard to come by.

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Focused On Which Family?

When I think about family, one of the first things that comes to mind is dinner around the table. Kids grow up there. Couples grow old there. It’s where the day is reviewed and the world’s problems are solved.  What’s amazing is even if there isn’t much to eat, you still do it together.  There is something about it.

A mentor of mine (father figure is more accurate) lives in a beautiful large home.  In that home he has a dining room table.  Interestingly the table is round, not long, so there is no head of the table so to speak.

Let me describe what happens when you go to dinner there.  When you pull up in the driveway you set off the driveway bell.  They have that bell so that by the time you get the door they are already there to greet you – usually with a hug, not a handshake.  Then you go inside.  Typically there are some drinks and often even some sort of good snack.  This is followed by the choicest of meals.  You eat this while seated around the round table.  My mentor will then have some sort of question that he wants each person to answer. (By the way, this is the furthest thing from fast food possible – you could be there for three hours – but it won’t seem like it).  He genuinely wants to know about the people around his table.

All sorts of people have sat around that table.  Politicians, dignitaries, business partners, business competitors, refugees from third world countries, people from a bunch of different walks of life, and even me.  And every one of them is welcomed and listened to.  “Now wait, we haven’t heard your story yet. Tell me about. . . . ”

It’s a picture of family – God’s family.  It’s a picture of The Kingdom.

We live in a time where it seems like the nuclear family as we’ve known it is being blown apart.  There’s the divorce rate.  There’s the fact that more women in America have their first kid out of wedlock than in it.  More and more people are choosing to not actually get married or if they do it’s much later than ever before.

This actually hurts our society in several ways (shrinking middle class anyone?). And the Church has seen it and often has become focused on changing it.  But the problem is, focusing on the nuclear family won’t turn the tide.

First, it leaves out and alienates too many people.  Families go to church.  Single people don’t.  50% of Americans are unmarried.  And guess what, most of them aren’t going to church.  Part of the reason? Focus on the nuclear family.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t focussed on it.  Jesus said things like, “unless you hate your mother and father, or brother and sister, you are not worthy of me.”  He said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.  For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, . . . a man’s enemies will be members of his own household”. Once when he was teaching, his mother and brothers came and he says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Try preaching that one on Mother’s day.

None of this is to say that family is bad or that the church shouldn’t speak to what marriage and family should look like.  It should.  People who are married need to know it and people who aren’t need to know what it would mean if they did get married.  Not only that, but marriage and family are set up by God.  Marriage happened pre-sin in the garden.  It’s not a concession, it’s a gift.  But the problem with focusing there or calling the family “the foundational institution of human society” is that God never said that.  God’s Family is the foundational institution of humanity – not my family – thank goodness!

The point of marriage, family, or for that matter celibacy, is to point to God, how he loves us, and the Kingdom, not the other way around.  When we lift one up over the other, we limit the picture of the Kingdom and we leave people out – the exact opposite of God’s picture.

You know what the safest, most welcoming place in the world for the single person should be?  The Church.  It should be the place that calls them family, not the place that makes them feel like they dont’ have one.  You see the Church should be a place where you can find fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.  Maybe if we could figure out how to do that, we’d have less to worry about on the back end.  What we need is for the Church to focus on the Kingdom Family.

Which family is your church focused on?  Who are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?

I believe this:  There is a family dinner table – and you are invited.  When you show up the Master meets you at the door – with a hug, not a handshake.  He serves the choicest of meals.  It doesn’t matter what your story is, how “important” your earthly role is/was. Married, never married – whatever.  It won’t matter except as part of your story.  Everyone has a seat.  He wants to hear everyone’s story – your story – even though He’s knows it. There’s no hurry.  You’ve got an eternity – and after all, this is family.

 

 

Is Your Singleness Selfish?

One of the things that used to bother me the most in my over 20 years of singleness was when people who were married would tell me things like, “Enjoy your singleness while you have it”, or “Take advantage of where you are at”, or “Enjoy the freedom you have bro.”

Now at some level there can be some wisdom here.  We should focus on living fully in the context we are in.  It doesn’t do us much good to have marriage as an idol and constantly be thinking that my whole world would be perfect if I just met the right person.  I get that.

But I think at this point it might be fair to say that in our context today, we might be taking a bit too much advantage of our singleness.  We might be too focussed on our “freedom” at times.  It’s not like everyone is launching into early marriage.  In fact almost no one is.  So maybe we should ask some different questions.

First of all, we need to get over the fact that life is hard.  Yes married people, I get it, marriage is hard.  But we need to be really, really careful with that because in our culture we seem to be equating hard with bad.  But in the Kingdom hard and bad are not synonyms.  Hard and Joy are not opposites.  And besides, singleness can be pretty dang hard too.  Life is hard sometimes.  And sometimes it isn’t.

So one trap we need to avoid is setting marriage up as this great loss.  Like somehow if you get married your personal life is over.  That’s a lie.  It’s different yes, but not over.

But there are even more traps here.

The idea of taking advantage of your “freedom” or living it up before you settle down is extremely dangerous spiritually.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that getting married made them realize how selfish they are. I have no doubt about that.  I’ve had a few other friends tell me that they really realized how selfish they were when they had kids.  I for sure can see that.

But they were selfish the whole time.  They just didn’t realize it.  What if as a single person we went ahead and started working on this now?

Look, if everyone was still getting married when they were in the early twenties, maybe marriage would be a good time to realize you’re selfish.  But sense only 20% of people in their twenties are married, maybe we’d better not wait for marriage to realize it.

We have a more self-absorbed world than ever.  It’s so much easier to get away with it. Do you know that 50% of single people live by themselves?  Think about that.  We go where we want.  We eat what we want. We spend money on what we want, when we want, without anyone knowing about it.  If you’re single right now, name one person who knows your income to debt ratio.  

And the world encourages it.  Go get yours first.  You’re somehow not ready to be married until you’ve got your career where you want it or all your issues worked out.  Live it up, then get married.  What kind of plan is that? A plan to stay single – or have a rough marriage.

We say this spiritually too when we misinterpret scripture to mean that when your single you are more able to focus on God than if you are married?  Really?!  That is not what it says.  If that were true then literally no one should get married.  It’s not do great ministry while you can, before you get married.

This line of thinking also starts to bleed over into keeping us single when we shouldn’t be. Hear me clearly here.  Just because you are single doesn’t mean you being selfish.  But there are a huge number of people that are single in large part because they are living and/or dating selfishly.  

What would it take for us to get married? Well we need to meet the person who looks how we want, acts how we want, makes the money we want them too or in other words, “the one who meets all my expectations and needs”.  Friends, that person DOES NOT EXIST. Am I saying settle for anyone?  Heaven’s no.  But what I am saying is that the vows of marriage are not self centered.  We don’t stand up front at the wedding and talk about what we expect to receive.  We promise what we will give – until death.

Here’s the reality, neither singleness or marriage is about me.  Life is not about you.  It’s about God and the Kingdom.  

Our culture has crafted out a time of singleness for most people.  We are not called to spend that time being about ourselves or “taking advantage of our personal freedom”.  Instead we are called to deal with our sin and advance the kingdom.  Married or single we are called to crucify our flesh.  Jesus says “whoever loses his life will find it”.  There aren’t any parameters on that.  Not marriage, not a certain age, not after certain career goals are met.  Now!

If we get married it’s not so that I can get my needs perfectly met through a spouse.  It’s so we can follow God together.  If I have kids, they aren’t mine, they’re for me to shepherd and do my best to point towards God.  And if we are single, it’s not “our time”.  It’s God’s. In other words, start dealing with your selfishness now.

Is your singleness all about you?  Where is selfishness keeping you single?  Is anyone in your life besides you?  When is the last time you made a decision based on what was best for someone else?

The Marriage Is Hard Movement

The other day over lunch a young friend said, “I think it’s the trendy thing in the Christian world to make sure that everyone knows that marriage is hard.”  Haha – Amen.  For sure in the hipster Christian world it is.  In fact it’s so trendy that if your marriage isn’t “hard” then you aren’t cool, must not get it, and are probably heading for disaster.  Man we have over thought this thing.

To begin with it seems sort of counter productive to keep telling this to a group of people (those aged 18-29) that aren’t getting married.  Only 20% of them are married.  So if the goal is to warn people – well then – good job!  Seems to be working.  No one is rushing into marriage.  In fact they are rushing away from it.

As the divorce rate rose in the late 20th century, the Church rightly reacted to re-estabish marriage as a covenant and not just a contract.  They wanted people to make sure they knew it was permanent and that even when it’s hard you hang in there – because less and less people were.  All good so far.

But I believe as an unintended consequence we’ve now got a Christian culture that has made an agreement with the enemy by accident.  They’ve made marriage out to be harder than singleness.  The words Marriage and Hard are now interchangeable in Christian culture.

It doesn’t help that a lot of this generation’s pastors bringing this message are generally kind of joyless to begin with. (For free – one thing the New-Calvinists and Emergent Church leaders have in common – They’re both mad).  These people want to make sure that everyone gets the seriousness of marriage, which is great.  But if we let that steal the joy of marriage then both the married and unmarried are screwed.

On top of this our generation whines a lot.  I’m a part of it.  Think about it.  My job is hard, my school is hard, singleness is hard, times are hard.  Everything seems to be hard and everyone wants to make sure you know that they are suffering just as much as you. Hardness is a badge of honor.  Joy isn’t even on the radar.  I’m dead serious.  There’s a spirit of complaining that is rampant in our world. Can you picture your grandparents sitting around talking about how hard any of those things are?

We spend more time complaining than doing something about it.  How many men’s “accountability” groups are really “share your problems” groups.  “Yeah Bro, that’s tough.” is about as much help as we offer each other.  We’re all about empathy and understanding, which are important.  But at some point, it’s time to actually deal with your stuff, not just have a great premium beer while talking about it.

Marriage is hard because dealing with our sin and woundedness is hard – and marriage forces the issue more than any other relationship.  But marriage isn’t the problem.  We are.  We don’t need to be afraid of marriage – we need to deal with our crap.

Over the years I’ve walked with a lot of people in tough marital situations.  What usually happens is this.  I listen to a guy for about half an hour pour out all that is wrong with his wife.  Then I ask a couple of questions.  And the next thing you know I’m saying something to the effect of, “This is really about you.  You need to deal with . . . ”

Now sometimes a guy has been sinned against or his wife is really going through something horrible and I’m not negating that type of thing.  But about 90% of the time when a guy says to me that marriage is hard what he really means is, “I don’t want to –  face this wound, deal with this sin, make this change or grow up in this way.”

The truth is that in the long run, marriage is not “harder” than singleness.  All research I’ve ever seen (almost all secular) says that married people are happier, have more and better sex, make more money, live longer and impact society more.  It’s a societal foundation. That’s not to say that being single is “wrong”.  Some are called to celibacy and some are single for other reasons.  My point is that a whole lot of this trendy “marriage is hard” stuff is more about sounding deep than actually dealing with deep stuff.

Maybe most importantly, we need to realize that hard and bad are not synonyms – even if our comfort culture tells us they are.  In the kingdom, hardness and joy are not opposites.  That fact is part of our witness.  But we lose our witness if we leave out the joy part.  Read that again.

As singles looking to be married we need to walk a line here.  We need to realize that marriage is not sex and romance on demand and it certainly won’t solve all of our problems. But we need to not give into the lie that it’s so hard that we probably can’t do it.  Don’t resign to it being bad.  It also would be good to start dealing with our sin and woundedness now.

I’d encourage married folks to think about what you mean when you say it’s hard.  What’s the point you’re really making?  Why are you making it?  As a warning?  As an excuse? Are you dealing with what is specifically making it hard right now?

Focus On God’s Family

When I think back over my 20 years of singleness, one of the hardest things to deal with is loneliness and living life without a “nuclear family.”  It means you keep switching who you live with, hang out with and often go to church or small group with.  There is very little built in permanence to our relationships as an unmarried person.

This is exasperated by the transience of our society.  We move a lot.  Sometimes this is because we refuse to just settle in and settle down, but sometimes it is harder to stay put. Why can’t you move for that job promotion or calling?  You have fewer ties.

I remember when God was calling me to a new place in my career at age 30.  One of the biggest things that held me back was that I didn’t want to start all over relationally.  When you are married and you move, you have to start over, but you get to do it with someone. You still wake up with the same person, even if it is a new place.

The Church has a huge opportunity here.  But mostly we fumble it because we are focussed on the wrong family. 

As I mentioned last week many churches have family as an idol.  As pointed out by John in the comment section, some churches flat out say this, calling the family the foundational institution of society.  Most churches won’t say that in writing, instead they just imply it by almost everything they do and talk about.  But this is not right and not from the Bible.

Jesus almost never even mentions the nuclear family, and when he does He is usually talking about it mattering too much in the wrong ways.  Now to be fair that was a different culture in which family was more central than in our current one.  However the way to fix the lack of family in our culture is not to focus on it, but instead to focus on God and His family.

Jesus certainly does.  In Matthew 12 Jesus is speaking to people, sharing truths with a crowd.  His nuclear family shows up and they want to talk to him (or maybe reign him in a little).  Jesus responds, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Not exactly the answer we’d often hear today.

This is so important.  It’s part of what makes the Gospel scandalous.  This idea that there is new order coming, a new Kingdom where things are different and where all are welcome. He promises that those who have left all (including family) for the sake of the Kingdom will not be left out.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach about how to have a Godly marriage and family.  FAR FROM IT, or as Paul would say, BY NO MEANS.  In fact marriage was ordained by God (pre-sin) and it and the family can be a picture of the Kingdom when done right – so we need to learn to do it right. But what it does mean is that we have got to start from the premise of the bigger picture. A right theology of marriage, singleness and family can only start from having a focus on Jesus and His family first.

The Church should be a place where everyone feels welcome.  But right now that is often not the case.   And the reason isn’t because single people care less about God.  Here’s the truth – one of the hardest things to do as a single person is go to church alone.  It’s scary.  It’s easier to go almost anywhere else as an unmarried person.  School, work, the bar, the concert, the movies – all easier.  Especially for a non-believer (you know those people we are supposed to be reaching out to).

I’ve lived this.  When you move to a new place, church hunting as a single is brutal.  You have to be super motivated to make it happen.  Friends, when a single person shows up at your church, they are either really trying or really seeking – you need to go get them because if you do, God will move.

This starts by focusing on the Church family.  This is why it’s so important for married and singles to be friends.  As I’ve mentioned before, all my mentors have been married.  I have fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and even kids that are married as well as single.  They are my family just as much as my blood family.

We singles need to do our part.  The Church should be our permanence. That’s the promise of the Gospel and the way it’s going to be in the end anyway.  But when the focus is on the nuclear family and not the Church family we don’t fit.

What is your church’s focus?  Which family is first?