Wanted: Role Players in the Body of Christ

Joe Kleine was one of the best basketball players in Arkansas Razorback history. An All-Conference Selection in 1984 and 1985, and Kleine also played on the 1984 Gold Medal U.S. Olympic team. In a game against the 2nd-ranked Houston Cougars in 1984, Kleine led the Razorbacks to victory, snapping Houston’s 31-game conference winning streak and outscoring future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajawon 22-10. During his career at Arkansas, Kleine averaged 18 points per game—more than Michael Jordan averaged during his career at the University of North Carolina. 

But, after completing his collegiate career and joining the NBA in 1985, Kleine went from being a stand out all-star to an average, back-up, role player. In the late 80s and early 90s, Kleine played for the Boston Celtics. While he was there, he was overshadowed by a number of very famous and very good players—Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Reggie Lewis, and Robert Parrish. Parrish in particular overshadowed Kleine, because Parrish played the exact position that Kleine did—center. Robert Parrish is considered by basketball experts to be one of the greatest centers who has ever played the game, so Joe Kleine got to be Parrish’s backup. 

It's not easy being a backup, a second teamer. Backups are called things like “substitutes” and “bench-warmers” and “role players”. Backups don’t get to play on the Dream Team; they don’t get to play in All-Star games. Their basketball cards aren’t worth very much, and they don’t get to make many commercials. It would seem that being a backup isn’t a very important job.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Consider the following description of Joe Kleine from an article by a Celtic sportswriter a few years back: 
“He is what he is. And he knows exactly what that is—the backup center on an NBA team. Every NBA team would love to have Kleine be what he is, which, in addition to being a competent NBA center, includes being a first-rate person.” 
The article goes on to quote one of Kleine’s former coaches: 
“When we had him here, Joe was our lug. Now, he’s your lug. But you know what? He’s a good lug, I wish we still had him.”
Why is Joe Kleine, a second-string backup center, the kind of player that every coach wants on his team? Why is he the kind of player that coaches don’t want to give up? Because he is willing to accept the role he is given, and give his best performing that role, even if it is not exciting or glamorous. 

Paul talked about role players in 1 Corinthians 12.14-18: 
“Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be.” 
We don’t each fill the same role, but Paul goes on to tell us that we each have a role to fill. Moreover, he tells us that God bestows an extra measure of honor upon those who fill roles that seem unglamorous: 
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think of as less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
Just as role players are an integral part of any NBA team, they are also indispensable within the church. Unfortunately, this is often a difficult lesson for Christians to learn. Even some of Jesus’ apostles struggled with this concept—in Mark 10, James and John asked to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus so that they could receive special recognition. This request was made because they did not understand the role that God had given them. In Mark 10.43-45, Jesus explained to them that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Are you willing to be a role player in the Body of Christ? Because that’s the kind of player that God is looking for on His team.


Friday Summary Report, February 15

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I have read some good articles lately that I would like to share with you:

(1) This article, “Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church”, has been talked about a lot over the last few days, but it is an important one. The author makes some outstanding observations. One of his important points is about the church always trying to be “relevant” (notice the quotation marks). The church should always be relevant because the Gospel is relevant, but we have to be careful of trying to be trendy, (which is what churches often try to be instead). Being relevant is crucial; being trendy is lame.

(2) This post is now a month old, but is hilarious: it stereotypes youth ministers based on the type of facial hair they sport (or don’t).

(3) Here is an excellent post and video for parents on how to teach priorities to your children using a family calendar. Don’t be alarmed by the attention-grabbing title of the post—this is an excellent and practical idea for Christian families. Listen to the video all the way through, as some of the best stuff is his discussion on priorities leading to identity and the realization that sometimes living according to our values will come with consequences.

(4) This post I wrote on Hashtag Media has gotten some attention. If you haven’t yet gone to check out the good work these guys are doing, please do so.


Controlling the Flames of our Tongues

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in Chicago, Illinois. It started in a small shed (no one really knows how) and quickly spread throughout the city. The heavy use of wood for construction at that time, a drought which had occurred prior to the fire, strong winds from the southwest that carried burning rubble toward the heart of the city, and poor reaction by city officials and citizens all combined to create a devastating inferno. The fire burned for two days, but even when it was over, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for days. 

Eventually, the vast destruction from the fire was determined:
  • An area four miles long by three quarters of a mile wide, or more than 2,000 acres
  • More than 73 miles of roads and 120 miles of sidewalks 
  • 17,500 buildings 
  • $222,000,000 in property, which was about 1/3 of the city’s total value 
  • Of 300,000 inhabitants, 90,000—30% of the city’s population—were left homeless 
  • 200-300 people were killed 
What began as such a small flame was transformed into a catastrophe.

In James 3.5-10, James compares the human tongue to a raging fire:
“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” 
James compares the tongue to fire because just like fire, if our tongues are out of control, they can cause a great deal of damage. Gossiping, talking behind people’s backs, saying hurtful things, putting others down, spreading falsehood…all of these actions of the tongue can cause far-reaching damage. When we’re careless with our words, we can destroy a friendship or a reputation.

A lot of times when we talk about moral problems, especially with teens, we tend to focus on the “big” issues: things like drinking, drugs, sex, etc. Those issues need to be talked about, but the harm we do with what we say is a much more common problem—I hear people using their fiery tongues all the time (even in church!) with little regard for the collateral damage they could be causing.

Read James 3.9-10 again: 
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” 
Our speech can be a problem or it can be pleasing to God. What’s it going to be for you? Your tongue can be as dangerous and destructive as a fire. Use it carefully. 


Hashtag Media: A Creative Solution to a Common Problem (Curriculum Confusion Part 2)

Yesterday I talked about the difficulty that youth ministers and others face who have the task of choosing Bible class curriculum for teenagers. I discussed three different common approaches to finding curriculum, but also mentioned that each of these has significant drawbacks.

Today I want to write a little about Hashtag Media, which is a new effort that I see as a creative solution to the problems I talked about yesterday.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember me talking about the Hashtag Youth Series, which was a free video-based youth summer series which was released last year. Hashtag Media was launched in early October as a companion project to the Youth Series, and proceeds from Hashtag Media’s resources are reinvested in future Youth Series and other projects.

All of this is pretty exciting, because the products that Hashtag Media have released so far have virtually all of the advantages I talked about yesterday from the different curriculum types without any of the drawbacks:
  • The material is created by youth ministers from churches of Christ, which means that distinctive doctrines aren’t ignored—I don’t have to worry that the significance of baptism will be diminished or that the lessons will implore teens to come to salvation through a sinner ’s prayer method which isn’t talked about in Scripture.
  • Written by professional ministers also means that the content of the lessons is high quality.
  • The material is created to be Christ-centered, which means it still has a “big picture” focus that is very important for teens.
  • The lessons are fundamentally biblical; the current series we are studying is from the Book of Ephesians and uses an expository verse-by-verse approach which encourages the students to really dig into the text (it is excellent).
  • More than just the content of the lesson, the overall product is very good: the graphic design is excellent, and the lessons come with starter activities and illustrations which help bring the biblical message to life.
  • It is affordable. The longer quarter-length series are only about $50, and they have recently rolled out the option of buying a year’s subscription which means that you can get all the new material which comes out in 2013 for only $200. These prices are very competitive (read: cheap), and knowing that all of the proceeds go toward creating more material makes it even easier to justify.
  • The creators of Hashtag want to increase the size of their curriculum library, and solicit the help of others who would be interested in submitting Bible class series to them. I appreciate the collaborative spirit of this project and will likely send them some of my own material at some point.
The only drawback I really see at this point is that currently, Hashtag’s offerings are a bunch of stand-alone class series which aren’t connected as part of a larger curriculum plan. To me that isn’t a huge problem (right now I am just using Hashtag products to fill in the gaps of other curriculum plans that I have), but perhaps as this project continues, they will put more thought in this direction.*

On the whole, I am really excited about the potential of Hashtag Media, and am grateful to the team of youth ministers behind its creation. If you are a youth minister or the person at your church in charge of selecting Bible class material for teens, I would encourage you to take a look at what they have to offer.

*Also, all of Hashtag Media’s resources are exclusively in an electronic, PDF format. Some people might see this as a drawback, but I don’t: you can get the resources immediately through email once you order them, and everything is going digital anyway. Before we know it, “class books” will be a thing of the past.


Curriculum Confusion Part 1: Different Approaches to Bible Class Material for Teens

If you are in youth ministry or are involved with organizing Bible class curriculum at church, you are likely aware of how difficult it is to select quality Bible class material for teenagers (in fact, I’ve actually written a bit about this before). If you find yourself in this situation, you basically have three different options:

(1) The “Do It Yourself” Model
This option is actually pretty self-explanatory: you want Bible class curriculum for your teens? Write it yourself.

There are several advantages to this approach:
  • Theoretically, you should know your teens pretty well, so you ought to have a good idea of what they need to study, and on what level they need to study it (generally speaking, 12th graders are completely different than 7th graders and need to be taught differently).
  • If you are producing the material, you can be confident in the content—you don’t have to worry about something being taught that you disagree with or think is unbiblical.
  • This is a cheap way to go about acquiring Bible class material—aside from the small cost of making copies of handouts, basically the only cost is your time.
But there are significant problems to this as well:
  • It is very time-consuming to write every lesson for your teenagers from scratch. I have written lots of Bible class material for my youth group and invariably, it takes a lot of time. If you happen to have a lot of excess time, that’s great, but I don’t: realistically, with other ministry responsibilities, grad school, and family concerns on my plate, there are only a few quarters a year when I have time to produce original Bible class material. 
  • Your Bible class material will only be as good as you are. What I mean is that if you are great at doing research, writing lessons, and putting together attractive powerpoint presentations, then your students will be in for a treat…but if this just isn’t one of your strengths, then subjecting your students to quarter after quarter of mediocre material is less than ideal.

(2) The “Least Common Denominator” Model

This option involves purchasing curriculum from a large company which specializes in producing it. I use the term “Least Common Denominator” because usually, in an effort to appeal to as many potential customers as possible, this material presents a very generalized, inter-denominational Christianity that offends no one.

Purchasing material from a large company like this does have its advantages:
  • Curriculum like this is written by professionals, and is usually well planned and very professional. It will usually come with supplemental materials like activities related to the Bible lesson or videos for your students to watch. 
  • Sometimes it will be planned so well that it integrates with children’s and adults’ curriculum as well; it is a neat thing to have everyone in the church studying the same lessons at the same time.
  • By its inter-denominational nature, this approach it tends to focus on “big picture” biblical themes that everyone basically agrees with (Jesus, grace, sin, etc.) and which really do need to be emphasized to and understood by teens.
Although this is a very popular model, it comes with multiple problems as well:
  • It is usually very expensive: a quarter’s worth of material could cost hundreds of dollars, and if you follow an entire curriculum plan, it could be thousands of dollars each year. A lot of churches (mine included) simply don’t have the education budget to afford this year-round.
  • There are a lot of disagreements within Christianity (about things like salvation, the relationship between faith and works, the way the Bible should be read, the way we should worship, etc.), but the Least Common Denominator approach tries to ignore all of them by presenting a simplified Christianity that few find objectionable. Maybe that sounds idyllic, but ultimately, a diet of only this type of material produces students who haven’t thought deeply about (and potentially aren’t even aware of) any of these issues. To me, that’s a significant problem.
  • Also (and related to the last point), going along with the Least Common Denominator approach, oftentimes these studies are topical rather than textual, and focus on moral issues that virtually all Christians agree about: the dangers of drinking, drugs, premarital sex, etc. While these topics are important and need to be discussed, too much focus on them leads to the already-too-prevalent idea (among teenagers and the church as a whole) that being a Christian is nothing more than following a particular moral Do’s and Don’ts List rather than living a redeemed life as part of the Kingdom of God. In other words, curriculum should focus on the Gospel, which includes, but is much bigger than, the fact that Christians should behave in a certain way.

(3) The “Brotherhood Material” Model
The third option is to purchase material from within your particular religious fellowship. In churches of Christ, we don’t like being referred to as a “denomination”, so we tend to refer to publications put out by members or companies affiliated with churches of Christ as “brotherhood material”.

Advantages to this approach include:
  • Theoretically, getting material from within your own fellowship should mean that it is doctrinally agreeable.
  • Usually, the cost for this type of curriculum is considerably less than the Least Common Denominator model.
But once again, there are multiple problems:
  • A lot of times, these materials are produced by smaller companies, and frankly, the quality is sometimes lacking.  In my experience, I have found this to be especially true on the presentation side (i.e., it doesn’t look that good), but it can also be weak on content as well.
  • Even “brotherhood” publishing companies want to make money and sell lots of their products, so they too can fall victim to the temptations to publish very general material that appeals to as many people as possible. When this happens, it is subject to the same problems as the Least Common Denominator model mentioned above.
So each of these models, although possessing strengths, is also characterized by significant disadvantages. I guess the major takeaway from all of this analysis is this: it is a challenge to find quality Bible class material for teens. So what is the solution? More on that in the second half of this discussion…


Pity for Those Who Do Not Know: The Story of Jonah, Part 3

If you’re coming late to the party, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

So far, we’ve seen that Jonah was pretty mixed up about what was important—he valued a plant which provided him with shade more than he valued the lives of the people of the great city of Nineveh. We’ve also seen that as the people of God, we can get similarly mixed up.

God’s response to Jonah at the end of chapter 4 is an attempt to correct Jonah’s perspective on things. He says, 
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from the left, and also much cattle?” 
God tries to get Jonah to see how He pities the people of Nineveh. A lot of time we have a negative connotation with the word “pity”, but it really just means to feel sorrow over someone else’s condition (The New American Standard Bible says “compassion”; The NIV uses “concern”). God points out how ridiculous it is that Jonah felt sorrow over the death of the plant, but feels no concern at all over the 120,000 people of Nineveh “who do not know their right hand from their left”—basically, people who don’t even realize how bad of a spiritual condition they are in. 

It’s interesting—the Book of Jonah ends with God’s question. We don’t get to hear how Jonah responded; we don’t get to see if he corrected his attitude. But really, that makes sense, because the Book of Jonah isn’t really about Jonah—it’s about God…and God’s concern for all people…and God letting His people know about how much He is concerned for all people! So it makes sense that the book ends with God sharing that concern with Jonah. 

It is our understanding of God’s pity for the lost—His feeling of sorrow for their condition—that can provoke a similar sense of concern in us. You know, a large part of Jonah’s problem was that he didn’t understand the value of the Ninevites. To him, they were worthless, less deserving of his concern than a plant which sprung up overnight. 

What about us? Do we understand the value of those who are lost? 

Most of my readers know that I am a huge baseball fan, and when I was younger, one of my favorite hobbies was collecting baseball cards. I would spend most of my allowance buying packs of cards, I would collect and trade for my favorite players, and I would spend a lot of time looking at and organizing my cards. 
Another thing I would do with my baseball cards was try to figure out how much they were worth. They would put out price guides every month that would supposedly tell you the value of each card. I remember I would look up my cards and I would take them and brag about it to my dad: “Look Dad, this card is worth $2; this one is worth $5; this one is really rare—it’s worth $30!” 

My dad was never impressed with my claims though, and I remember that he would always look at me and say:
“Son, that card is only worth what someone will pay for it.” 
You know, that definition of value makes a lot of sense to me. And if the value of something is determined by what someone will pay for it, God made it abundantly clear for once and for all that the lost are worth more to Him than anything—because He paid for them with the death of Jesus on the cross. 

That price was paid even for folks whom we don’t like very much, people who make us uncomfortable, or people who have hurt us in some way. 

That price puts all of the distractions in our lives—the other things that seem so important to us—into perspective. 

As I said at the beginning of this series, I’m really not a big fan of Jonah, because he reminds me too much of myself: 
  • I’m not always eager to do what God wants me to do…
  • I make the mistake of thinking that I am somehow more worthy of God’s grace than someone else…
  • I get distracted by unimportant things and forgetting the value of the souls around me…
Maybe some of you can understand where I’m coming from. 

Fortunately, the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love with the Ninevites is also that same way with me. Fortunately, that same God decided that my soul was worth enough for Jesus to come and die for it.

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