Tag Archives: bible

Why I Write My Sermons In A Bar

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One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”

My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.

In The Lab That Is A Study

I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.

As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.

In The Field That Is A Bar

Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.

As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.

On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.

I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.

Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.

I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.

Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.

I grieve. I pray. And I write.

Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”

I remember. And I write.

After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.

I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.

It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:

How would people in a bar understand this?

Would people in a bar know what to do with this?

Do people in a bar even care about this?

What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?

What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?

What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?

What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?

What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?

What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?

What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?

What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?

How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?

Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.

Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.

 

The Best Way To Create A Family Friendly Church Service Is To Stop Having A Biblically Committed One.

MB PostsYears ago I was on a return flight from a conference in California. I was early onto the flight so I buckled up, settled in and popped open my Bible. It was a risky move in that it opened up the possibility for conversation, something I very much wanted to avoid on this flight. A Bible in 8B can act as a beacon of invitation for a sweet older Christian in 8A who sees your Good Book as a good opportunity to bend your ear about church potlucks and her quilting for Jesus club. Or even worse, you might end up with a Dispensationalist in 8C who wants to know what you think about blood moons, the Trilateral Commission and Nicolas Cage starring in “The Left Behind” movie. It was risky, but I had some things on my mind and needed to do a little cross checking.

As I read, a distinguished older gentleman hoisted his bag into the compartment above and then settled in next to me. I could sense his head tilting to glance over at my reading material. For roughly 5 minutes he did this until his eastern European accent cut the air, “You are reading a Bible, yes?” Hoping to maintain a cone of silence and dissuade any further conversation I simply nodded. “I’m Jewish. I know this book. It is a dirty and vile work.” With those words the cone of silence evaporated.

“Really!” I thought. “Of all the people you could have placed next to me, Jesus, you put a Nazi-era Jewish European who thinks the Bible is ‘dirty’ and ‘vile’.” At a slight loss for an opening sentence, I simply burped one of those awkward chuckle-coughs and mumbled, “Really?”

“Oh yes, it is the darkest least moral book in the world.” Now at this point I figured he was going to elaborate on how it has started wars, fostered slavery, blamed his people for the death of Jesus or segregated people groups. Instead, I found that his thesis was a bit more content driven.

“It opens violent. The world is chaos. Then God tears everything apart to make day and night, land and sea. He then makes people where sex and domination are their first commands. It starts with violence and sex. It’s dirty.” I confess this was not the answer I saw coming. In fact, it’s an answer I had never even considered before.

“Interesting… I’ve never seen it that way.”

With a kind sincerity he looked at me and said, “How could you miss it? It keeps going like that. They are naked in a garden. Their son kills their other son. After that God destroys the world due to wicked people. All those animals die because of people. It’s very very violent. God telling people to kill men, women, children and even the pregnant women for land. You see men having sex with their slaves and grotesque animal sacrifices. Even Solomon writes a book on how to have sex – it’s a pornographic book.”

Awkwardly I responded, “Well that’s why I’m more of a New Testament guy.”

“Oh, the New Testament! I’m Jewish; I do not know it so well, but I do know it says Jesus was crucified for sins. That is a very violent way to forgive. I also know Jesus said He will send people to eternal torture if they don’t believe in Him. That is both violent and cruel.” He then paused for a brief moment, leaned in and said in a whisper, “The Bible should never be taught to children. It is not for kids. That is why Christians change the stories so much, to make them friendly for their families.” With that he simply patted me on the forearm and said, “Thank you for the talk. I think I will rest. Enjoy your book.”

This 15-minute interaction happened over 20 years ago, but I never forgot the importance. While I didn’t agree with this man’s extreme articulation, I did agree that the Bible is not exactly a family-friendly book and to make it so does violence to what God has revealed. Think about it. Even the “kids’ stories” of Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, David and Goliath or Jesus and The Apostles are at some juncture R-Rated stories if accurately and fully told. Even the moral parts that would be construed as most family friendly are usually set against a backdrop that is not. For example, if you want your kids to memorize the 10 Commandments you are going to have to get into swearing, murder and sex. Aside from these popular examples, the entire narrative of the Bible is dealing with the problem of sin, rebellion and wickedness and how God solves that through Jesus, the Cross and His Word.

From all of this I see that the only way to be truly family friendly in a Sunday service is to redact much of the R-Rated Bible in order to make the whole experience more acceptable for a G-Rated expectation. Yet this fails our commission. Our calling is not to decide what we think is appropriate in the Bible, but to communicate the full council of God. We are not free to be editors, but proclaimers. We don’t possess the authority to write or erase the mail; we merely deliver it as it is. Now, I know that sometimes God’s mail makes us squirm, gets uneasy or even downright feels offensive, but not nearly as much as the sin it’s combating. Sin makes the Truth, even the ugly Truth, necessary. And as Christians move forward in the hopes of reclaiming a family-friendly world I pray it begins by embracing the fullness of the not so family-friendly, though always family-preserving, Bible.

Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus

MB PostsI recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend  a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.

Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.

Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.

If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.

So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.

For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?

My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.

The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Sex
  • Money
  • Occupation

Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.

Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.

“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)

That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:

  • Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
  • Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
  • Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
  • Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
  • Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
  • Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.

If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.

If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.

If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.

 

I Don’t Mock Zeus Because He’s Fake

MB PostsRecently I was reading through some Atheist material in preparation for an upcoming sermon series when I came across a familiar counter theistic argument. The basic concept is that Christians are actually Atheists in regard to all other gods except their “one true God.” Therefore the only difference between a Christian and an Atheist is that the Atheist goes one god further. Now I do admit the argument is not only cleaver, but a bit compelling too.

As an Evangelical I am a stanch Atheist in regard to all other gods. Oden is lore, Zeus is fiction and while Osiris looks like “Beast” from Teen Titans (which is awesome) he lacks standing support. But here is what is also true; I have no angst, spite or distain for those gods. I feel zero need to discuss how petty, juvenile, cruel or ridiculous they may be. In fact my “Pissed-O-Meter” doesn’t even tack .1 when I think about the topic of other gods.

Now maybe that is because I’m reflecting on gods that are long bereft of worship. So I decided to dig a bit deeper into my own emotional grid. But when I did so realized that my “P-O-M” doesn’t even budge when I think about the gods of current religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Isn’t that weird? It should be weird based on the “Christians are actually Atheists – save one” argument. Here is what I mean.

I concur that I am a full naturalistic skeptic in regard to Allah and Shiva, but I’ve also never been compelled to assault their character, actions or personhood. I can’t even imagine wasting time, emotion or energy to do so. I have certainly spent time dealing with comparative religious systems in light of Christianity, but I have never put the gods of those systems in my crosshairs because I know I’m shooting at thin air. I don’t waste time mocking the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the  same reason. To have any critical or negative opinion of a deity that I consider to be a mythology is about as rational as mocking the Leprechauns I don’t believe inhabit my toilet bowl. What makes this even weirder is that while billions of people are affected by and follow the gods that I don’t believe in, my Atheism regarding their gods is so sincere I don’t feel the need to burn a single calorie to assault the character of their deities. I will challenge their religious philosophies, but I never attack their gods. Additionally I’ve never been a part of any Christian group where people sat around and badmouthed other dieties. They may talk about Islam’s doctrines, but no one I know sits around and talks about how silly or sadistic Allah is. That would be a bit weird right?

Then I thought about it more. I’ve also never met any full Atheist who has displayed the need to consistently dismantle the reputation of any other god – except the God of Christianity. On this god I find a disproportionate obsession with assaulting the character of what is adamantly defined as an inane and outdated myth. A famous instance of this comes from Richard Dawkins when he writes:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

I give Dawkins points for flair, but I also sit somewhat dumbfounded and think, “Why waste this much ink to mock a fable?” It would seem a sincere Atheist would be radically passionless toward any mythological deity precisely because of the “fact” that it’s a fiction. I think about how more than a few Atheists glibly equate God with Santa Clause, but none that I know of take the added time to bust St. Nick’s snow globes for breaking an entry or jipping naughty kids out of Christmas. Yet in my experience I commonly find Atheists are colored with a deep passion against the “myth” of the Christian God. It’s a case of real hate for the fake god. And then I realized, perhaps the hate is real because deep down inside they hope – might I even say, “pray” – He is real so He can feel their disdain.

As for me, I will continue to go on in my unimpassioned Christian Atheism. I will not Photoshop Zeus out of the Trevi Fountain to mock his mythological status. I will not imprint a Flying Spaghetti Monster between the elephants of the Banteay Srei Carving of Shiva to belittle Hindu gods. And I will not rant about the cruelty of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious when he had Anakin kill his loyal Count Dooku. All for the same reason, only realities are worthy of my passions.

Passion for your house (Oh Lord) has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.     Psalm 69:9

 

 

Boys vs The Porn Apocalypse (Pt. 5): Technology Sucks!

MB PostsIn almost every sense of the meaning I find that technology sucks. It sucks time, money, energy, electricity, emotion, innocence and focus. This isn’t to say that I reject the positive aspects of the electronic age, but advancement has come at a cost. And the cost is not that we have, but that we have too many: too many emails, text messages, tweets, articles, posts, blogs, games, options, shows, channels and interest. In my immediate family alone we have 5 people with a total of 20 Internet, satellite, or texting capable devices:

  • 5 Mobile Phones
  • 5 Computers
  • 3 TV’s (connected to a satellite provider)
  • 3 Tablets
  • 2 Gaming Platforms (1 TV based / 1 Handheld)
  • 1 Blu-Ray/Netflix Player
  • 1 Wireless Router/Modem Combo

Now here is where this really sucks, each of these are a portal to various levels of porn. Anything going out is a conduit for bringing unwanted things in. Therefore, if you are seeking to establish protections for your boys, while still remaining connected electronically to the outside world, be prepared to have a lot of your life and time sucked away to do it, but realize it will be worth it! In this final post to the series I will outline all the various ways you can get ahead of these opportunities. By tomorrow I can imagine that many boys will be very bummed to find that the way they were getting their secret fix is now coming to light.

Where To Start?

For the last couple of years I have sought to be rather vigilant in this area, but this Christmas we gave our son both a computer and a mobile phone and with that came the challenge to proactively work through additional safeguards. And challenge was no understatement. So challenging in fact that it’s pretty tough to plug all the holes. I can guarantee that outside of removing every electronic conduit in your home you cannot establish an airtight seal that will keep out the noxious fumes of hard-core porn (straight, gay and other), soft-core porn, sexting, sexually suggestive programing, sexual articles/stories or sexual advocates that are contrary to your values from your home. This is particularly why I saved practical measures for last and emphasized discipleship first. Jesus is your first and greatest offense, “controlling” technology is a useful, but incomplete defense.

Additionally as a disclaimer – I am not an IT engineer. I am a pastor with a moderately average knowledge of technology. I don’t give the following solutions as the exhaustive manual on “How To Porn Proof Your Home.” I could have gone to friends far more knowledgeable than I in this field, but I am running with what I know specifically as an encouragement. Some reading this will be very savvy in the overall realm of modern communications. Others will be more like me and have to hunt for answers. That means it takes some work. It will suck some time. It will keep sucking time since technology and adolescent prowess evolve at lightening speed. Yet the investment of time will pay off with a life of healthy dividends.

A Clear Edict

I find that with teens you can never be clear enough. As adults we are used to reading between the lines or understanding the intent of things, but for an adolescent abstract thinking is still developing. Therefore having clear, non-sarcastic, non-belittling guidelines from the outset makes a world of difference.

  • “I can look at any of your electronic devices at any time I want without warrant, warning or permission. This is not to invade your privacy, but to protect your heart and mind.”
  • “I get passwords to all sites, devices and email connected to you and I will be monitoring them. This is not to pry into your personal life, but to safeguard it.” (Remember parents, our goal isn’t to “catch them” but to “grow them.”)
  • “I can grant or revoke any privileges you have electronically for the sake of your good. This is not for the purpose of punishment, but to honor my biblical responsibility to Jesus as your parent.”

In all of these, never feel bad as a parent for not being as carefree as other parents. There is a fine line between carefree and careless.

Rerouting Your Router

Your Wi-Fi Router is perhaps your most unconsidered device when thinking about porn. Makes sense since it doesn’t have a screen and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard of a 12-year-old boy was aroused by three blinking lights. Because of this many parents assume that protection begins at the device with the screen. Now a few years ago this was easy since Wi-Fi was a computer only feature, but today many kid oriented devices are Wi-Fi enabled such as the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Vita, not to mention that devices such as Xbox, Wii and PlayStation all come with Internet features. With so many options one way to put up a respectable detour is to address your router. On my home network we run OpenDNS. It’s free and it’s pretty effective at blocking content at the router (unfortunately it does not typically work for those of you cursed with a satellite provider due to their configurations). You can customize it to a limited degree and it is password protected (don’t pick any family familiar passwords – use your 4th grade teacher or something they would never guess). What is especially great about this is that it blocks most every device that connects to it regardless if the device has filtering software or not. Therefore outside of your son discovering the password or resetting the whole router it’s a good first line protection. Sometimes it blocks non-offensive content, but again this is a small price to pay.

P.S. Knowing the technological brilliance of some boys I would advise you both change the password on occasion and keep it recorded someplace non-electronically. Also make sure you still have control of the router by intermittently typing in your password, thus making sure they didn’t reset and type in their own. They can be crafty little hackers.

Filter His Computer & Password Protect All Others

I am a big fan of program called X3 Watch. Having said that, it’s worthless for a boy. We have it on all our computers and the reports go to my wife for overall accountability. Yet for a boy we need more than getting a report of the 200 porn sites he hit over the last 7 days. Therefore on my son’s computer we put Net Nanny. It’s customizable for both content and times of use (I don’t allow it to have internet activity between 9:00pm-7:00am). It is password protected, generates activity reports and can be accessed remotely.

In addition to this we do not allow him to use his computer in a bedroom or any room where a door is closed. We basically handle his computer like a loaded weapon and Net Nanny as the safety. In other words for the non-gun readers: just because it has a safety doesn’t make it safe and additional precaution is mandatory. If your son only has a desktop and it’s in his room – take it out, it’s just that simple.

On the additional computers in the home I would advise either installing Net Nanny or at a minimum running X3 Watch for general monitoring, but restrict access through password protection. Again pick a password your kids do not know and set those computers to need that password anytime they are turned on, opened up or come out of sleep mode (setting the sleep mode to every 15-30 minutes). A boy on a mission will look for any device not secured.

Making Mobile Devices Less Mobile

This is the tricky one right here. Not only do you need to be mindful of the obvious ones, but also the subtle ones such as sexting, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or the 4 other options that just came out in the last 45 seconds since I started this sentence. The other part that is tricky is that unlike computers and routers that have a bit more uniformity, every mobile device is radically different from platform to platform or carrier to carrier. Even more challenging is that most of the operating systems on mobile devices are not designed to allow for a single program to monitor the whole device (such as Net Nanny on a computer). Therefore you will have to do some homework on your devices, but here is what I did with our son’s iPhone. I’m sure others can add solutions for Android and Windows in the comments section below.

The iPhone/iPad Itself

In the “Settings” – “General” – “Restrictions” I set a 4 digit passcode and disabled:

  • Safari (the web browser)
  • Camera (if your son needs a camera, give him one without digital sending ability)
  • FaceTime (it automatically turns off with the camera)
  • Installing Apps (this is HUGH – if you leave this on he can go get any other Web Browsing App he wants thus working against your efforts. If he wants an App you can do it with him. I give my son time every once in a while to do a big app download over 20 minutes and then I look over what he downloaded before I disable to Installing feature)

In the place of Safari I purchased the Web Browser App Mobicip. It’s very much like Net Nanny for an iPhone, but it’s the actual browser and not a program that monitors browsers (which is why you need to disable Safari and restrict Installing Apps). I also limit the times it can be used in the remotely accessible settings panel (again between 9:00pm-7:00am)

The Service Provider & Texting

With AT&T there is a month additive you can buy called Smart Limits. This allows you to control hours of usage and restrict texts that can come in or out through an approved phone list. In this I have only allowed family and close known friends to be on the text list. If he needs to interact with a person not on that list, a good old fashion phone call is perfect. Texting lowers too many inhibitions for adolescent kids and so not even giving the option until they have a couple of years under their belt is a good thing. And for the first time in this whole series I would say this goes doubly for girls.

On texting as a whole you shouldn’t have as much a fight if you start off with limits. If you are seeking to implement these later down the road it may be a bit harder.

IMPORTANT – Turn off (or never turn on) iMessage on their iPhone. iMessage bypasses Smart Limits since it is Web based, not Provider based. You may have to do some homework as to settings in Apple ID accounts so they can’t turn it on themselves as easily.

Additional iPhone/iPad Devices In The Home

If you don’t opt to take the same measures on your own devices, make sure you set “Autolock” with a “Passcode Lock” that only you know. Personally I have adopted the same standards for my own phone that I placed on my son’s. It is a way of standing in solidarity with him.

Keeping PlayStation From Becoming Play(boy)Station 

In our home we have an Xbox360 in the living room (again, no potential Internet access points in kids bedrooms unless they are controlled by an hours of usage option). Our particular Xbox is a bit older and so it does not have an onboard Wi-Fi option. When we choose to access Microsoft Live we establish a Wi-Fi bridge via an Ethernet cable and one of our laptops. Therefore the Xbox is dependent upon another device that I have more control over based on the above precautions.

Obviously this is not everyone’s situation. Most new consoles and handhelds have built in Wi-Fi, thus having the OpenDNS option is a benefit in blocking the use of the browsing clients on console and handheld gaming platforms. Luckily some of the systems also have their own content filtering options as well. Some of these options may have better protections than others as far as passwords or pin numbers to engage or disengage the content filtering. The reality again is that we can’t just do it once and never check in again on it. Each device will suck some time to keep monitored, but the initial set-up instructions for the top brands are below:

Handhelds

Platforms

HBOooo That’s What “TV-MA” Means

Premium channels and Pay Per View options are another area where the definitions between entertainment and “mature” entertainment are being blurred, and this too creates an opportunity for our boys. Now some of you may feel safe because you don’t pay for premium programming such as HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, but throughout the year these channels offer free trials with opportunities for soft-porn viewing. There are also the Adult Pay Per View options that offer “discreet” billing (i.e. the title is nameless on your billing) and thus are easily overlooked when paying bills or billing is automatic.

The best solution here is to set the rating on all your TV receivers to an acceptable level and block all adult channels behind a passcode that only you know. This is perhaps the easiest safeguard of all the opportunities for pornography.

Not Necessary Pornography, More Like Impuregraphy

The last thing I would add is so vast I needed to make up a word. Much of this whole series has been dedicated to the sometimes narrowly viewed theme of pornography, but the issue is much bigger. It entails any electronic opportunity that would misinform, ill-define or put at risk a biblical example of sexuality. Many of these are especially difficult to block because they sometimes fall into the realm of non-filtered content. It may come in the form of provocative movies through Amazon or Netflix, or through highly questionable (but technically permitted) videos on Break, Vimeo or YouTube. It may not even be sexually explicit as must as sexually contrary to your views (something even more serious with the tender and impressionable age of adolescents when kids are in search of an identity before they are capable of discerning one). Personally I know I can’t monitor every possibility, but what I have done is restricted all the major video sites on my son’s mobile device via the “Blocked Sites” option in Mobicip and then only allowed him access to such sites on his computer in the living room with the family around.

The Big Idea

Overall you as a parent are their best guide, filter, advocate and advisor. Thus you must be perpetually connected, talking and monitoring. You must be displaying a healthy and open view of biblical sexuality. And yes, it will be awkward for everyone involved. So start the uncomfortable discussions, ask the leading questions and share your own challenges. In short you want to be discipling their heart. Use the technology to your advantage like texting your son on how’s he’s doing or if he has questions. Just as texting lowers inhibitions in the negative, it can also be a means of him opening up to you as well so that you can swing around later with a face to face.

Our calling as parents is clear, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6). Training isn’t exclusively commanding actions. Nor is it merely blocking opportunities. It is a concert of Bible, gospel, wisdom, heart, mentoring, failure, repentance and grace – along with additional protections that aid in keeping their hearts from corruption so that they may grow into the godly men Jesus seeks.

Boys vs The Porn Apocalypse (Pt. 4): Jesus Died For Porn

MB PostsIn dealing with our sons struggles with porn we must assure them of a solution. The gospel of Jesus is a message that both rids us of our shame and empowers us to overcome the strong biological, emotional and visual draw that is associated with pornography. Again I want to reiterate that making pornography impossible to access is not the solution, making it undesirable is. Therefore the most effective way this temptation will be resisted is to make obedience both a realistic possibility and an internal want. And that begins with understanding the power of the gospel.

Titus 2:11-14 says, 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Three things must be imprinted into our sons hearts:

1st: Grace  Is – Grace is the unsolicited, unearned and undeserved favor of God. In dealing with our sons we must remember that what they most need is a personal God who conditions their desires. We don’t want our boys thinking the way forward in overcoming porn (or any other sin) is chiefly a matter of self-determination, but rather it’s a matter of reformed affection that comes through a growing understanding of the power of grace. Helping our boys develop gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice and forgiveness begins to lay the foundation for a life of obedience both in public and private.

What is especially good for us to remember is that it will always be grace – not law – that ultimately protects and liberates our boys. Thus if you simply jump to the end of this series on “the laws of practical porn proofing” and do nothing else, you may in fact taunt your sons to sin without even intending to. In Romans 7:7-12 Paul shares a profound truth regarding the law. There he says that the law entices – not curbs – sin. This is why you see people at the Grand Canyon throwing rocks just a few yards down from a “Do not throw rocks!” sign. The mere sight of “don’t” makes people want to “do” (especially in the adolescent brain). The reason is because the function of the law is to incite our natural rebellion, thus proving we need God’s grace to heal our defiant hearts. Therefore “don’t” – by itself – often works against us. Because of this the electronic safeguards we implement will be nothing more than challenges for our boys to hack unless they are coupled to a bigger sense of Jesus and grace.

2nd: Grace Saves – It saves us not only from the penalty, but the power of our sins; to renounce our rebellion and reinforce righteousness. Both of these are critical because we need our boys to know that resisting temptation is both an act of running from sin and running to Someone and something righteous (2 Timothy 2:22).

Additionally, they need to realize that the powerful draw of temptation is not as powerful as the ability to overcome. Sin and righteousness are not dualistic in the life of the believer. Temptation isn’t an equal and opposite force. In the believer’s tug-of-war over sin the Holy Spirit is the anchorman who shifts the balance of power. In the pull of the Holy Spirit we have what is needed to overcome moments of enticement (Romans 8:1-4 & Galatians 5:16-26). Paul knew this in struggling with his own temptation when exasperated he says, 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7). I know that kind of frustration. I know that sense of failure. Who will rescues me from my failures? I love the answer, 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7). Paul knew temptation, but he also knew that grace saves us from that sense of inevitability regarding failure. This is why he told the sexually charged and confused Corinthians, 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The key here is helping our boys to see the value of redirecting their attention when temptation comes; to reestablish focus when the internal booty-call suddenly arises in their temptations. Romans 8 reminds us that, Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Helping them learn to set a positive foothold for their mind will give them a powerful tool for life-long peace.

3rd: Grace Inspires – Grace must be communicated in a way that helps our boys become “zealous for good works.” We as parents must not reduce the inspirational power of grace by making it a synonym for law. Our tone must be that of understating, direction and hope. We are to bring empathy, boundary and the conviction that goodness is way better. We parent from the posture of sinners coming alongside fellow sinners with the reminder that we all overcome by grace. We are the living embodiment of how our boys understand Jesus and grace. Thus we must be careful to not take their failures or sins so personally that we fail to provide them with an accurate picture of who God is and how He empowers us to overcome ourselves in hope.

Grace Tips

  • Help your son to see that Grace is something we receive while Law is something we do. Therefore to receive daily overcoming Grace he must seek Jesus as the source of that grace through ongoing prayer. A great rule of thumb is to encourage them to talk out loud to Jesus so that he is more real in their life.
  • Help him realize that in God’s common grace, Jesus has provided many opportunities to avoid tempting situations such as hobbies, sports, chores, friends or the like. Distractions when tempted are a wonderful form of common grace. It also follows the pattern of 2 Timothy 2:22 when it says, “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace.
  • Help him begin disciplines such as quiet-times or devotional book readings that fortify his inner spiritual life. The Word of God has power and the life of the Holy Spirit in him is strength. We don’t want to overcome porn with Law (since that is impossible – Romans 7:7-11), we want Jesus to shape his heart with Grace and Truth (John 1:17 & Romans 12:1-2).
  • Help him to know that Jesus died for porn. Specifically that Jesus took the sin of his porn viewing and suffered for it on the cross, so that he could be totally forgiven and made new (2 Corinthians 5:21). Let him know that while you will be taking some precautions to protect him, those are not designed to punish him or throw his past in his face. Reinforce that Jesus was punished in his place so he could be forgiven and move forward.

Friday: Final post to the series, “Technology Sucks! Safeguarding The 7 Primary Ways Porn Gets Into The Home.”

Boys vs The Porn Apocalypse (Pt 3): Your First Contact To His First Contact.

MB PostsMost of us as parents will need to get comfortable with the fact that our boys first contact with porn will be much sooner than we would care to admit, particularly if we fail to provide safeguards far in advance. And typically the way most patents find out is not through a proactive confession or a yelp of shock in the adjacent room. No, most parents find out by stumbling upon an already established habit. It typically comes when you walk in on a flushed and deflecting boy or you decide to open a browsing history on his device of choice only to find a list of titles that make you flushed like a caught boy. In these instances a vast array of emotions can crush into your gut: shock, worry, anger, disappointment or disgust. All of these are understandable; it’s your first contact to his first contact. Yet before you decide to react from the circus in your gut, slow down so you can wisely respond to the real problem – his heart. His heart sin (manifest as porn viewing) is an opportunity for you to reinforce the sin conquering grace of the Gospel. With that in mind here are some responses to consider:

If you find out – don’t avoid, but engage.

Occasionally there are parents who would prefer to jam their heads in the sand and just pretend like they didn’t see. Or worse, there are parents who avoid it because they don’t believe such habits are really that wrong since “boys will be boys” (and because the parents themselves have the same habits). To be clear, both make for poor parenting (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Ephesians 6:4 & Proverbs 6:15-23). Let me help us all out right now, if pornography is a part of your diet either individually or as an additive to your marriage “take out the log of porn that is in your own eye so you can deal with the speck of porn that is in your son’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5). Either resolve to remove it or seek out a safe confidant who can help you begin to overcome it. Whatever you do don’t leave it unaddressed, in your own life or his.

If you find out – don’t freak out, but draw out.

For some parents this is hard. Especially since some of the things you find may be uniquely graphic and disturbing. Keep in mind that when it comes to pre/early teen boys and pornography you have an unequipped mind crashing into an unregulated world that can lead to a remarkable display of discriminant viewing. For a parent the result can be such a high level of shock that they react with the blunt force of shame and guilt. Unfortunately shame is a powerful tool of the Devil to drive sin underground in the lives of people. If we shame our sons in this context it can inadvertently create an environment by which their heart is never addressed and so they simply learn how to better hide their habits.

Keep the big idea always before you – his heart. You want him to turn away from sin not merely for fear of getting caught by you, but because he has a fear of the Lord than cause him to hate sin (Proverbs 8:13). You want to recall the wisdom of Proverbs 20:5 Though good advice lies deep within the heart, a person with understanding will draw it out.” You are the parent of understanding who can help draw out in your son what he knows deep down is God’s best. Therefore you want to ask questions more than make statements. Monologuing is easy for parents, but boys only hear about 1/5 of what is said in a “corrective” lecture. Because of this you’re better off to hit your intended target by opening a dialogue by which you can begin to deposit wisdom through conversation.

Now at this point many of you may be asking, “How do I open the duologue ?” I get it. For most parents dealing with sons and porn is a rookie situation. All those “What To Expect When Your Expecting” books didn’t prepare you for this. With that in mind I want to help us identify some Gospel oriented questions to ask our boys. To do this however I want to start with some less than ideal questions many parents ask and then move to the useful stuff.

Questions You Don’t Want To Bother Asking:

Why are you looking at these things?

It’s a redundant question that may inadvertently fuel a shaming tone. He’s looking because he’s curious, aroused and sinful. You know the answer better than he does. Besides the answer itself contributes nothing to the solution. Leverage good Gospel questions, not filler questions.

Do you think this is acceptable?

Obviously he doesn’t. If he did he would do it openly in the living room during family time. He hides it because he knows its wrong. This, like the previous question, is redundant. More importantly it is a misdirected question. The filter we always want to use in regard to sin is not “What do you think?“ but “What does Jesus think?” In Psalm 51:4 David says to God, Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” In viewing pornography a boy is harming himself and grieving his parents, but he is sinning only against Jesus who died and suffered wrath for his porn viewing. Thus it only matters what Jesus thinks.

What would your __________ (sister, mother, grandmother, friends, etc.) think of this?

The question hints that you may in fact broadcast his sin to Nanna. This may not be your plan, but it will make him wonder. Aside from that it works much like the previous question. The issue is not about what others think; it’s about what Jesus thinks. This is especially important since it is easy to find large pockets of people who affirm  sinful practices as good and commendable. As soon as we make humans the primary consideration we are at the mercy of whatever they consider to be sinful.

Do you know how exploited these women are in pornography?

If your son is under 16 years of age he really has no idea – even if you tell him. Abstract thinking hasn’t fully developed and so a sense of empathy toward people they do not know, and who “appear” to be willing participants, is of limited value in dealing with adolescent temptations. This isn’t to say that this question isn’t an important one to address, but if we try to use it as a tool to repulse them away from pornography it will not be effective.

Talking With Our Boys – A Gospel Starter:

Parenting is sinners raising sinners. Therefore we should engage the conversation as a fellow sinner who realizes the need for and power of the Gospel. That is the tone that sets the opener statement, “I want you to know that I understand where you’re at right now. I want us to talk about it. Would you like to talk now or in about an hour?”

This seems trivial I know, but it shows this is bigger than a fifteen minute chat. What you’re saying is you’re prepared to take time to work this through; therefore you’re prepared to give him some time to think this through before you talk. It also reinforces the tone of a dialogue verses the “were talking about this now mister” approach that all but guarantees he will not open up to you.

Once sitting down to talk (in a quiet, non-public, uninterrupted space) here are some “drawing out” questions:

  • When did you first start looking at these kinds of things?
  • What kinds of things have you looked at?
  • How often have you been looking?
  • What do you believe Jesus thinks of what you’ve been looking at?
  • Do you know Jesus has given us what we need to overcome our sins? (notice the solidarity of “us” and “we”)
  • How can I help you out on this?
  • What are some ways we can guard against this happening in the future?
  • Is it cool if you and I pray together every night about this for a while?
  • I’m going to ask you every few days how it’s going. Will you be open with me if I promise not to freak out toward you?

Now trust me when I tell you that the questions above are far easier to list than ask. And take my word for it; you’ll be lucky to get 20 words from him in the entire encounter. Yet it’s less about getting answers and far more about creating an open environment for you and your son to acknowledge  sin and seek grace. He must know you have empathy and understanding more than you have judgment. This doesn’t mean you lack concern or disappointment in the conversation, but you need to have a tone by which he knows you really do understand where he is at and you want to help him along the process. And that is a key word for you to lock in – process. His temptations will not end with one heart felt conversation. The longer he has had to feed the habit the harder it will be to overcome. You are beginning a journey with your son that will consist of many conversations like this (and a few failures too). Therefore the biggest most powerful way to help him is to every time point him to what Jesus has done and can do.

Coming Up Wednesday: Pt.4 “Jesus Died For Porn”