Saturday, September 13, 2014

Greetings from our new 4th-6th Grade Director, James Walton

Hey Parents,

Wanted to first let you all know how excited and passionate I am about being able to pour into the lives of your fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. As I enter into this ministry and seek God's heart for vision, direction and strategy on how to impact your kids, I want to first take the opportunity to introduce myself on a more personal note.

Most of you may know who I am through my famous mother Debbie Walton, and rightfully so. I would not be the man I am today without her influence and example in my life. However, God has particularly done a unique work in my life beyond the influence of North Coast Calvary Chapel.

I grew up in the church, with great examples and love in my life, but I did not find a personal love and devotion for my Savior until after I graduated high school in 2009. The summer after graduating I took a flight down to Chile, South America, and joined a school with a missions organization named "Youth with a Mission" (YWAM). The Lord really took hold of my heart in the first week and began a discipleship process in my life. I spent the next three months receiving great teaching from passionate and committed missionaries and then putting into practice everything that I had learned in the following two months.

Over the next four years I would spend about half the year ministering and serving with YWAM and the other half serving as an intern in the sport ministry here at North Coast Calvary. Between both ministries I have served in about seven different countries (USA, Mexico, Egypt, England, Chile, Argentina, Peru) and have had the privilege to see God move in different ways in each of them. I continued studying with YWAM through their "University of the Nations," where I completed a leadership training school and the school of the fundamentals of biblical counseling.

One of the aspects of this new opportunity to serve that excites me is the role I will have of imparting a lifestyle of discipleship to the hearts of your kids. I hope that through my own personal experiences and lifestyle, they will take to a deeper relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks for your support and prayers and I look forward to serving with you in the discipleship of your kids.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Big Job Ahead

What does it take to "go into all the world and preach the gospel" when the corner of the world where you are is diverse and pluralistic, and the people are busy, transient, and subject to a constant stream of marketers who want their time and attention?

That's a big job, and it calls for a big effort.

This business of disciple-making in Christianity has never been an easy one, even when times were simpler and there was a lot less for people to do. If you believe - as I do - that God is real and that spiritual forces exist, it's understandable why. Every living thing - God included - has wants, and so the matter of what will capture someone's heart-and-mind allegiance comes down to a contest.

As significant figures in the lives of kids - parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, coaches, teachers, mentors, and ministry workers - what's our role? How can we work most effectively and faithfully? Those are some questions I hope to explore in this space in the weeks to come.

But there are some really key things we need to acknowledge, beyond that disciple-making is hard. They are specific to our culture, and they're truths some people don't want to confront.

The first is that just bringing kids to church isn't enough. Church programming, while really, really important, cannot take the place of a loving home environment, and it cannot supply the well-rounded package of support needed to produce full-orbed disciples. Instead, kids must be intentionally trained, and that training needs to happen not just in church, but at home, in school, on the soccer field - everywhere.

Secondly, there are kids in our culture who will never, ever set foot in a church, yet we are called to reach them, too. If we don't, churches become clubs, catering to their own. It's true that church is not a store. We're not open 24 hours for people's convenience; we don't have drive-thru windows. But if we don't stay mindful of who's "out there", in a few generations, there's no one left. I don't know if you've ever been a part of a dying church, but it's a real thing, and it's painful. Our church right now is healthy and growing, which is great, but America is full of emptying churches that were thriving half a century ago. The perpetuation of a church is never a sure thing.

So, here's the catch: a couple of generations ago, all a church needed to do was its share. Everyone went to church, so if this church and that church and the one down the street each did programs for kids: ta-da! Every kid was being reached.

But we live in a different time. And it calls for a different strategy, both inside the church and outside its walls.

The great Christian Educator John Westerhoff wrote that American churches used to belong to a special "ecology" of institutions, each interacting with the others, that supported spiritual development. This ecology consisted of:
1. Homogeneous communities (everyone thinks and acts like us)
2. Stable nuclear families
3. Public schools (which started the day with prayer and Bible reading)
4. Popular media (popular magazines were often from religious publishers, while stories from the Bible served as the subject for many Hollywood films)
5. Sunday schools (which were an important weekly ritual)
6. Churches (which were hubs of intergenerational social activities)

What's happened to this ecology? Communities grew diverse; family makeup changed. Schools did away with religious rituals; the number and variety of entertainment choices for families exploded. And as we became more mobile and busier, church attendance declined. Sunday schools (children's ministries) were left to shoulder the burden all alone.

To put it another way, what kids received when they went to church used to be the icing on the cake. All week long kids would take in a steady diet of Christian history, symbols, and thought. Church teaching merely reinforced agreed-upon social values. Now though, children's ministry programs are often relied on to accomplish what it used to take a cluster of institutions to do.

What can we do to rebuild that ecology? Is it even possible? Desirable? More next week.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Knowing Brazil

Have I told you about my trip to Brazil?

Let's have coffee sometime so I can tell you all about it. I'll tell you about the cities I visited, the food, the people I encountered, and the sites of Rio de Janeiro. And when we're done, you'll understand Brazil the way I do, and it'll save you a trip. It will be just as if you were with me.

Except that you won't understand Brazil the way I do, just as I don't understand Brazil the way someone who was raised there does. Being told about something is a far cry from experiencing it. That's obvious. So why do we teach the Bible this way?

It happens on two levels. One is when we, as teachers, study and digest the material so thoroughly in our preparation that we spoon-feed kids the "main point" or the "lesson" of every story. The other is when we teach at the level of story - focusing too much on details about the characters (such as that Lydia of Acts 16 sold purple cloth) or the setting (the temple was overlaid with gold) - and never raise things to the level of God, which is to say the consistency of his will and his character.

We like knowing that kids "got it", and that's why quizzing is so common in ministry to kids. But the Bible doesn't work like that. A friend from Georgia recently observed (at our conference in Brazil) that we read for two reasons: to be informed, or to be entertained. But the Bible stands alone in that its purpose is neither to inform, nor to entertain, but to lead us into relationship with God. Big difference. God is the main character in the Bible - not humans. So to reduce every Bible passage to a "lesson" (and ignore those that don't easily fit our teaching scheme) about what we should do - the fundamental essence of character education - cheapens the Bible and minimizes God.

Instead, the Bible is like rich, healthy food, and its truths are the nutrients. You and I can each consume an apple, but how the apple is digested and how it works to nourish and strengthen either of us is a bit different. You and I would benefit from eating that apple. But would the benefit look exactly the same? No.

When we teach the Bible in an overly academic way, we sacrifice the real prize for something less. And it's easy to fall into that trap: Kids are learning the Bible. Well, yes - and no. What if the product of good Bible teaching isn't a large store of knowledge, but a healthy attitude towards the Bible, a curiosity and a willingness to know more? Maybe we'd tell less and invite kids to experience God more.

So while you might want to hear about my trip to Brazil, and I'd like to tell you, my real hope is that you would someday see it for yourself. Any account of my trip that encourages you to do that is worthwhile; any account that bores you or that shares so much it diminishes your drive to go there is counterproductive.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

What Surge is All About

Originally posted as "The Purpose of Surge", October 2013

Seven years ago, as I was sifting through a mountain of details, I had a moment of what I'd call Big Picture Insight. Only the insight was a question, which I scribbled down and which gnawed away at me in the years to come. The question was, simply, "What's the best tangible benefit a kid can take away from their involvement in our weekend programs?"

Is it some nugget of truth? The ability to express and defend their faith? The books of the Bible, memorized? Is it a warm feeling toward church? Same-age relationships? Is it a chance to serve others?

It turns out the answer is something that sounds about as cliched as it can be: it's God. [The answer is always "God" in church, isn't it?]

So that's the task. How do we get these kids to God, and get God to these kids? Not information about God - that's relatively easy. Scores of young people are walking away from churches with lots of knowledge about God. Many of them think they have a handle on God: he's ancient, he's static, and he's pretty much irrelevant to now. (When we make church too much like school, it's inevitable that kids will at some point feel "done" because after all, school is something you eventually finish and then move on.)

No, the objective has to be nothing less than kids encountering God. And we want it to happen often, again and again. It might be in our room, or in the quietness of their own bedrooms at home. It might be in a moment of adversity, or at a camp, or standing in Yosemite. It might be in the midst of family, surrounded by people who love them, or in the loneliest moment of their lives. But God is there, and they meet him.

But how do we get kids to God, and God to kids?

First, we need to recognize and affirm that God is alive. And as such, he is active. Do we really believe in a God who is everywhere and can do anything? Because the modern cultural narrative is that God isn't anywhere and can't do anything, or at most, that God is somewhere and will hopefully act when we want him to.

Exposing that lie does not happen by skillful argumentation. It's not the product of logical proofs or flashy showmanship. God can use all of those things, but it isn't really until he reaches beyond our efforts to touch an individual human soul that a person really encounters God. God is working specifically to reach your kid right now. He is trying all sorts of ways and using all sorts of things.

Secondly, we need to find where God is, and take kids there. I'll never forget the first time I saw a dad teaching his daughter to surf. This North Dakota boy just assumed surfing was learned the hard way, by trial and error, but that day at the beach, I saw exactly what the dad was doing. He was waist-deep in the water, holding the back of the surfboard, guiding his daughter into the wave - and then letting go and letting the wave do the work of carrying her. Because, really, how could it work any other way? If the dad held on too long, or kept her away from the waves, or pushed the board all the way to shore, or never let go, we wouldn't really say the girl had surfed, would we?

Now think about God and your kid. God is always at work. We don't create anything. What we do is steer kids into "the wave" and let it carry them. "Spiritual" growth comes from the Spirit. If God's not in a God encounter, it isn't a God encounter. And He will do the work, if we let him. And that's the purpose of Surge: to come alongside the work God is already doing in each 4th, 5th, and 6th grader and create some "spiritual momentum" by continually putting them in God's path.

What does a God encounter look like? Well, you know it when you see it. For one thing, it's pretty personal. You'll see kids gain insights and act in ways that show you they've connected with something beyond themselves. For another, it's unpredictable - you really can't manufacture it. It's not uncommon for kids at this age to go through a period of fascination with God. They suddenly have lots of questions, and they get into reading the Bible or other Christian literature. What's happening? They're meeting him, in a way we can't engineer, but we can only nurture. Nurture doesn't mean ignore, but it means we don't push too hard and we don't try to control it (the wave is the wave; it will do what it will) . Sometimes the best thing we can do is get out of the way of what God is trying to do!

That's how I see our weekend ministry, our midweek ministry, our camps, our outreach events (like KidsGames)...all of them are "teeing up" potential God encounters, and building the infrastructure for continued God encounters years down the road. That doesn't mean everything we do is stained glass and pipe organs (come to think of it, none of what we do is stained glass and pipe organs), things that would actually stand in the way of people meeting God. A lot of what we do might not look incredibly "churchy". It may even be fun! But that's ok, because God and fun are not mutually exclusive. I don't want kids growing up thinking that all of God's stuff is gloomy and sad and serious. Nor do I want them to think that if fun or smiling or laughter is involved, God can't be in it. Do you?

But there's a longer-term goal associated with Surge, too. It is that one day we might see a generation of adult Christians who are unhindered in their worship of God: not weighed down by debt, addiction, dysfunctional relationships, materialism, isolation, workaholism, narcissism, etc. In a word, I want to see a generation that is free. "It is for freedom that you have been set free," the Apostle Paul writes, but how many of us have that freedom - our salvation - and still live under burdens that we cannot or will not shed? The better way is to live in fellowship with God - God in us, us in God - and be so deeply invested in that relationship that our lives grow rock-solid: God-centered, Spirit-filled, truth-founded, mission-minded, others-focused, and purpose-driven.

That's what we must ultimately train kids for. Lives like that do not come about overnight. And they will not happen unless kids start to meet Him.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Can Kids Outgrow God?

Originally posted August 2011

During the last eight years of overseeing 4th-6th grade ministry at NCCC, I’ve had the parallel experience of watching my nieces and nephews grow up from babies to preschool and elementary school-aged kids. Through holiday visits, Skype, Facebook, and home videos I have been able to glimpse pieces of their faith development, and it’s been fascinating. I’ve observed prayers, Sunday school programs and songs, heard some Bible stories retold, and picked up some nuggets that reflect their young understanding of God’s big world and their place in it.

At the same time, I've witnessed each developmental stage and phase, and laughed with the rest of my family as the kids move from one obsession to the next. Blue, Dora, The Wiggles, Elmo, Spiderman, cowboys, and the Disney princesses have all had their day. But soon, each is eclipsed by the next favorite thing, and the old hero gets passed down to the next-youngest sibling. At their houses, Santa Claus is still alive and well at Christmas time. But this won’t last forever.

My hope, of course, is that their curiosity, interest, and affinity for God as they grow up will never go the way of Elmo. And that is my hope for your kid as well. It’s worth asking the question: Can kids outgrow God? Can he lose his currency, becoming yesterday’s news, just at the time when kids begin facing questions like, “Who am I?” and “What was I created for?” and “What am I worth?” Too many adults attempt to answer those questions with the very author of life shunted to the sidelines.

We dare not let that happen.

Does God live in storybooks?
I am a fan of Bible storybooks for young kids. Our family had one, and I still can recall “what Adam and Eve looked like,” and the fierceness of God’s wrath represented by a red sky, and the wily Jacob fooling his father into thinking he was Esau. Of course, those weren’t true pictures, but some artist’s rendering. But to me, they were “real." Young kids, being concrete thinkers, receive and store those early impressions and images for a long, long time. (When I was four, I thought our pastor and God were one and the same - probably the reason I still, without thinking, picture God having a red beard and not a gray one.) The downside to cartoonish representations, though, is that they can lead kids to believe that “Bible stories” and “Bible characters” were fictional. This is a symptom of a larger phenomenon that kids face as they grow. Bible storybooks are not the problem (not even a problem).

The issue is this: are kids’ conceptions of God allowed and encouraged to grow as they do?

We – the churches that serve them and the families that raise them – hold the key to the answer. To the extent that we “create” their understanding of God by the stories we tell, the symbols we use, the holidays we celebrate, and the way we worship (and countless other ways), kids’ knowledge of God is largely dependent on us. I do not deny that young children think thoughts about God completely on their own, nor that they can enjoy an unmediated relationship with him without any help from us. But that relationship does not exist in a vacuum. It is always culturally conditioned by the expressed thoughts and attitudes of the adults (that is, the authority figures) who run their world.

And so, we are responsible, not only for creating a picture of God that is true in their minds as young children, but also for continuing to refine and update kids’ views of God as they grow. If we are diligent about giving them Jesus when they are young, but then back off as they grow older, we run the risk that as kids grow up, they’ll consider God “kiddie stuff”, a relic from early childhood.

We dare not let that happen.

A different approach
As a kid becomes a preteen (and there’s no defining criteria for that), their ability to think and reason abstractly will blossom. As it does, they reach a junction in the development of personal faith. The question usually takes a form like, “Is God really real?” but what they’re actually asking is “Is God relevant?” As the serpent tempted Eve – “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree?” – kids also want to know whether God belongs only to the simple world they’re growing out of, or if he has a place in the more complicated world of the future? And if so, what is it?

About this same time, kids come to realize that parents and other adults aren’t perfect, that grown-ups break promises, aren’t superhuman, and actually get away with doing a fair number of the things they tell their kids not to do. What does this knowledge do to a kid’s faith, when up until that time, the adults in their lives have been the embodiment of qualities like power and might and authority and love and right – all of the same attributes that are ascribed to God? It’s common and almost unavoidable for a young child to perceive of God as a human. The concept of God being beyond human – that he is spiritual and eternal and holy? That’s a new one for older kids to make sense of.

And here’s another change: older kids exercise more leadership over their own lives. Young children make very few meaningful decisions for themselves. But older elementary kids get much greater latitude to decide who they’ll be and how they’ll act and how they’ll spend their time. And this is good – it is the birth of autonomy, which will someday lead them into life as an adult, no longer dependent on parental oversight. (Some preteen ministry colleagues of mine refer to this necessary stage as “Letting Go of the Bike.”) But, one of the skills needed to handle autonomy is the ability to discern good leaders from bad leaders. “Who should I follow?” is a key developmental step – it is the art of self-leadership. Older kids and adolescents are bombarded with cues about “how to be”: social cues, academic cues, family cues, cultural cues, internal emotional cues. It’s bewildering. Obeying God is suddenly no longer as simple as just obeying Mom and Dad.

I believe that to minister (literally, to serve or to meet the needs of) this age group, we ought to encourage and allow kids to bring God out of the box, out from the packaging he resided in when they were young children, and to meet, experience, relate, and walk with him in a new way. I don’t dismiss childhood faith; but neither do I rest on it. Young kids, for instance, say some pretty cute things about God. But what 10-year-old wants to be known for the cute things he used to say when he was five?

So, can kids outgrow God? In an actual sense, no. Of course God is big enough for all of our lives, and is always several steps ahead of us. But in a practical sense, yes. If we’re not diligent to push kids to grow in their faith – just as we would encourage them at this age to grow in athletic potential or grow in knowledge or grow in new experiences – then their faith will be immature as they grow right past it. I can’t help but think of a 9th grade boy I once led in a high school small group. We had just met, but it was evident he was attending youth group in body only. As he explained, “I figure I pretty much know everything there is to know about God.” How wrong he was, and how sadly his life unfolded in the years that followed, when he reached the point of his greatest need, yet God wasn’t even on the radar screen.

I don’t know what exactly brought him to the point where he thought he “pretty much knew everything there was to know about God,” but I suspect the culprit may have been one of the following:
  • Church programs for kids that were boring
  • Church programs that too closely resembled school
  • Programming that mistook fervor (“Scream for Jesus!”) for spiritual depth
  • Adults who talked too much and listened too little
  • Music intended to glorify God but that was too childish to work
  • Too-simple, pat answers to his questions
We will not let that happen! Growth is God’s intention for us. And growth implies change. An acorn is destined to become a shoot. A shoot is destined to become a baby oak. A young oak, while pleasing to the eye, is not meant to stop there, but to become a mighty, tall tree. In the same way, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” All kids want to grow up. (Yes, I know: if only we could convince them how great it is to be a kid!) We owe it to them to introduce and re-introduce them to the God who’s big enough for the future.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Marijuana: Not Safe for Kids. Too bad they think otherwise.

A tidal wave is hitting this country when it comes to acceptance of the use of marijuana. It's been driven by arguments for its medicinal use, but the effect has not only been more tolerance of marijuana as medicine, but a full-scale rejection of America's War on Drugs.

But don't be fooled: Marijuana is not neutral or harmless when it comes to kids.

Thanks to the excellent Tween Us blog from the Chicago Tribune for the heads up on this. If you're not regularly receiving their updates, subscribe.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What I liked and didn’t like about "Heaven Is for Real"

Why a Christianity that’s overly-focused on heaven misses the point 

Heaven Is for Real is a well-done movie. By that, I don’t mean it is “epic” or grip-your-seat exciting, but that it does what it sets out to do: it brings to the screen pretty faithfully something that actually happened. What’s more, the story is about a religious experience, which makes it a “Christian movie”, and those aren’t easy. Christian movies, while dealing with something inherently un-believeable (because it’s supernatural) nonetheless have to be believable. And, because they deal with Christian subject matter, they have to be biblically faithful. And with Heaven Is for Real, that’s the rub.

When movie making began, people made a lot of Bible movies. It's one reason we "know" that Moses looked like Charlton Heston, for instance. Of course, there was invented dialogue, because most Bible accounts don't give enough detail for a full movie script, and the special effects were schlocky, but the mission of these movies was clear: to bring to life a story from the Bible.

Those were the days, though, when Bible literacy was much more widespread than it is today. There was a market for Christian-themed movies simply because most of the people in the movie market were Christians. We can't imagine a Hollywood studio taking on the story of Esther today, or Ruth, or the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus proves a good subject for a blockbuster now and then, but the rest of the characters aren't widely-enough known to draw a crowd.

So now, Christian movies largely get watched by Christians, on Christian TV channels and through direct distribution on DVD at Christian bookstores. And let's be honest, Christians can be pretty brutal critics. Because we love the Bible and are loyal to the truth it contains, we're sensitive about anything that threatens to compromise the accuracy of the stories that get retold. This is the unique challenge of bringing the Bible to the screen: cast your movie with compelling characters and write contemporary-sounding dialogue and you just might grip a non-Christian who is captured by the story, but you'll run the risk of being savaged on Christian blogs for being unfaithful to scripture. We have a certain loyalty even to folk elements of Christianity that are not specified in the Bible, so Jesus has to be born in a stable and not a cave and there have to be three wisemen (the Bible doesn't actually say how many) and all of Jesus' miracles have to "look" like we'd imagined them to look or we're unhappy.

But what do we do with a movie like Heaven Is For Real?

When there is no Biblical plumbline against which to measure it, how do we begin to talk about a movie like this to people who will ask the inevitable questions like, "Did he really go to heaven?" and "Is that what heaven is like?"

The answer, unsatisfying as it is, is "We don't know."

It's unsatisfying because Christians are answer people and the Bible is our answer source, but when it comes to this little boy's experience, the Bible neither confirms nor refutes what he saw. And how can it? There's no book of the Bible called "Heaven", no description of near-death experiences, no counsel for us on what we'll see and do. Much of heaven is left to our imagination, and we've imagined some things that we'll fiercely defend as true. But whether they are our not, they don't answer people's question: Is that what it's like?

Some people have made an industry of heaven. Randy Alcorn and Mitch Albom wrote books about it. Highway to Heaven and, later, Touched by an Angel played on our curiosity about angels. Akiane Kramarik paints about it. But any medium ultimately falls short in its ability to depict heaven because all of them are inadequate for describing the most important thing about heaven: God.

Do I want people to believe in heaven? Yes I do. But I fear that movies like Heaven Is For Real and the dialogue it sparks drive people into an unhelpful speculation about heaven, a "how-good-is-it-gonna-be-for-me?" wondering, that makes them the focus. We speak of people dying and going to their "eternal reward", like heaven is the ultimate retirement village. Of course, being in heaven is rewarding, but the reward is not the things in heaven. It is God.

Movies like Heaven Is For Real can drive us to the Bible in a vain attempt to answer questions like "Who will we see there?" and "How old will we be there?" and "What will we do there?" when in reality, we are not the most important thing in heaven.

So here's a thought: Maybe the presence of God, in heaven, will be such a game-changer for us that the rest of the stuff won't matter.

The minutiae of life seems to matter now - because we're not currently experiencing the fullness of the presence of God. But you know those moments in life - a near-car accident, a benign biopsy, being separated from your kid in a crowd, the death of someone close to you - where everyday problems shrink into the background and you chill way out because you've been given a glimpse of what's really important? Now imagine heaven being and endless string of those moments.

Are there streets of gold in heaven? Maybe. Or maybe Revelation depicts streets of gold because that communicates "ultimate value" to our limited human minds, which apart from God cannot fathom the value that he, alone, actually has. The point is, if we pursue heaven for the things we believe are there or the feelings we imagine it will produce in us, we are banking our eternal hope on those things. We are loving what we imagine is in heaven instead of loving heaven for what it is about, which is God. And that's idolatry.

I want to believe with all my heart that Colton Burpo went to heaven, because if he did, it ratifies the existence of heaven. And it supports the idea that even kids can experience God. But any sort of speculation on the nature of heaven that doesn't circle back to being speculation on the nature of God is misguided.

Furthermore, when we focus on heaven, we are focusing on something "out there" and in the future. But to focus on God forces us to recognize that He - and His goodness, and His presence - exist in the now. The point of your life is not to die so that you can get to heaven. The point of your life is to experience the richness of God even in this fallen world, bursting forth in the most desperate circumstances, bringing light into darkness. That is redemption, and the miracle of God-in-us/us-in-God is what fuels our passion for more of the One who brings redemption (as opposed to passion for a self-indulgent heaven of our own imagining).

Last weekend, a 4th grade boy asked in our class, "Why will we be happy forever in heaven?" I think the answer is hinted at in Revelation 5. Not only will Jesus be in heaven, but our awareness of His sacrifice and His greatness will be so strong that it will dwarf any other consideration or care. The question is, what if (somehow) a person got to heaven and knew nothing of Jesus? And the answer is, they'd have nothing to celebrate! By extension then, the more our Christianity is bound up in Christ, the more we experience in this life what we will ultimately experience in heaven. But the more our Christianity revolves around security and creature comfort in this world, the further from truth of heaven we stray.

It's natural to wonder about the afterlife, about God's ways, about the time-before-there-was-time. But whatever Colton Burpo's experience was, or anyone who's had a near-death experience, we can be sure that if they were in heaven, they would have been encountering the fullness of God. Since we now see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12), it means any description or depiction of heaven this side of heaven will fall short.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Plea for Digital Integrity (or - Why no, your 11-year-old shouldn't have a Facebook or Instagram)

--> This is a message to parents, and to fellow ministry leaders who work with kids & students, and to the kids themselves, who will never read this but who need to hear it anyhow: We all need to follow the rules.

Specifically, I’m referring to age restrictions on websites and apps, those forgettable and almost wholly unenforceable, check-the-box affirmations we must click before setting up an account. The reason for age restrictions is, ostensibly, to keep adult content away from child eyes, but also to comply with federal law.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was passed in 1998. It prohibits the collection of kids’ personal information without parental consent. The thing is, COPPA is a product of the early days of the Internet, and it was a response mainly to e-mail and subscription-based websites (for example, you needed to create a Yahoo! account in order to use Yahoo! e-mail). When COPPA was passed, people had to sit at desks to get online (imagine that) or find an Ethernet outlet to plug into with a laptop. The Internet and social media were on the periphery of our lives, not at the center.

But now? It’s everywhere, and it’s all the time. Give great credit to Apple, which by shrewd marketing managed to convince all of the developed world that every one of us needed to have 24/7 access to the Internet via a personal handheld device (despite the fact that we seemed to get by without it just a few short years earlier). What started out to be sophisticated toys bought by adults quickly got adopted by high school students, many of whom inherited their parents’ used devices. And then, quickly, smart phones and tablets became standard-issue equipment for middle schoolers as well. And they’re encroaching into elementary schools. (And - look at this:

None of this is necessarily good or bad (though it is expensive). It’s reality. But it’s so much, so fast, that we’re left with this nagging suspicion that too much can’t be a good thing. Some control is needed. Parents are wanting to know what their kids are up to online, and wanting them to use devices less, or at least practice some responsibility.

But responsibility does not develop out of thin air. Responsibility is born of a commitment to observe guidelines, to define certain activity as in-bounds, and other activity as out-of-bounds. And so parents are installing filters and monitoring software, which are both imperfect and time-consuming (most of us barely have time to reflect on our own lives, much less that of another person). They’re trusting (hoping, really) that kids won’t figure out a way around the blocker or their password for parental controls, or creating anonymous, unmonitored accounts that parents don’t know about. And parents are resigned to the fact that there’s not much they can do to keep kids from accessing anything and everything on their friends’ devices.

In light of this, some parents are resorting to Digital Use Covenants, agreements the whole family signs about what constitutes acceptable and responsible tech use. Some are having their kids turn in digital devices during mealtimes or homework times or after a certain hour of the night. Some are learning how to check a browser history online. Gradually, family-by-family, definitions about what kids should and should not do/are and are not allowed to do online are taking shape. You might even call them “rules”.

Which brings me back to age restrictions.

When a preteen starts talking to me about something they saw on Instagram, my first question is always, “And what lie did you tell them about how old you were when you signed up for that account?” Because kids under 13 cannot, by law, be on Instagram. Or Facebook. Or any of a host of other apps and websites that are technically complying with COPPA by asking users to affirm that they’re over 13.

Why is this a big deal? Aren’t we living in a new digital era, one vastly different than the digital era of 20 years ago? To put it simply, if every kid is doing it, so what? Isn’t it just better to let them sign up, but then hold them accountable for the things they post and teach them to use it responsibly?

And the answer is no.

Because think about the message it sends when we turn a blind eye to kids lying about their age in order to get on Instagram – which is exactly what churches (or schools, or clubs) do when they promote use by kids who are too young to have accounts. The message is this: when it comes to those rules – meh.

And that’s a double standard.

The standard says: “As long as there’s no harm done, there’s no harm done,” and also: “No one has the right to tell you what you can and can’t do online,” – at the same time as we hope kids will willingly submit to family covenants and not try to defeat filtering software.

If we make it clear to kids that they don’t really have to follow the rules on the Internet, what makes you think they’ll ever follow your rules? Why should they?

The more I learn about social media, the more I understand it, and the less I fear it. But I also can’t ignore the fact that the longer I live, the more discerning I am, by default. We all are. Kids are not. I know not to judge my worth by how many Likes a comment or picture gets. Kids don’t. I know the harm that could come to someone else’s reputation, or my own, if questionable or offensive material is posted about them. Kids aren’t as careful. There’s nothing appealing to me about anonymous communication with strangers. Not so for kids.

Look at the rationalizations in these comments left by readers on a couple of blog posts about the the safety and appropriateness of Instagram for kids:

"I am 10 and I love Instagram! It's a fun place to post quotes and pics-it's really safe and if you use it very wisely than you won't have any problems with Instagram!"

"I am 14 years old and have a Instagram. I don't think it is safe for kids under 13 because a lot of people post BAD things and it may contain some overage images younger kids will find disturbing or gross. If you are a tween like 12 then that's okay because you can handle that stuff." (emphasis added) 

"I am 10-12 and I want a Instagram. I have promised myself to only follow people I know."

"I am a 13 year old girl that has everything - Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, you name it, I have it. My advice is not to get vine. It is for teenagers. Alot of my friends/other people I follow, we all swear at least slightly in our Vines. So its not intended for 10 year old ears. Wait until your 13. For Instagram, I think it's really ridiculous for 10 year olds to have Instagram. so I say wait until your 11 at least for Insta." (emphasis added)

Will most kids use Instagram or Facebook (or Snapchat or Tumblr or…) innocently and without causing harm or being harmed? Yeah, maybe. Probably, even. But (mostly) every kid who stumbles into inappropriate behavior online wasn’t looking for trouble when they signed up. It happened anyhow. And so the rules, archaic as they may seem and as much as we don’t like them, are there for a reason. They are to protect kids.

Mom, it’s ok. I’m not going to look at anything inappropriate.

No, I’ve never sent a sext, and I never would.

It’s fine. Me and my friends don’t post bad stuff on our accounts.

Everyone’s on Instagram. I’m the only kid without it.

All assurances kids make, and all sincere. But all beside the point.

Ultimately, our actions speak louder than words. It’s wrong to illegally download music I haven’t paid for. It’s wrong to hack someone’s account. It’s wrong to buy or sell pirated software. On what grounds do I tell kids they can’t do those things, even if they want to, even if all of their friends are doing it, even if what they’re doing isn’t nearly as bad as the really bad stuff you hear about, if when it comes to skirting age restrictions, I’ve communicated, “Eh, don’t worry about that”? In that case, does “No visiting adult websites” or “No sharing personal information with strangers” mean “no”, or “use your best judgment”?

Down the road, they will get on every app under the sun. And they will have to learn to self-regulate their own online behavior. I am talking here about people under 13. They are kids. They are forging an identity in light of what peer influence says they should be. They are beginning to test the limits of adult authority (“Do your parents really mean that when they say…?”) And they need to be taught that often, we have to say no to ourselves, even when we really want to say yes.

So if your kid is under 13 and is on social media, no shame. But delete their account (also, here). Tell them the law says so. Tell them you didn’t know that was the law. Tell them that yours is going to be a family that observes age restrictions. Doesn’t mean they’ll always comply. And they won’t like it. But it will send a message, a different message than “As long as you promise” or “As long as your intentions are good” or “As long as nothing bad happens”. We are teaching them that maybe, just maybe, there reasons to act other than immediate self-interest.

The idea that Kids are going to do whatever they want online…I have no control over it…All I can do is pray they don’t get into trouble is wrong. There are tools out there, and it takes a little work to stay informed and ahead of the curve, but you must. And one of those tools, at least for now, is the law on age restrictions. We need to follow it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

All About Instagram

From the Tween-Us blog – information on Instagram, the hugely popular photo-sharing app that is now owned by Facebook.

I share this with one caveat, and it’s a big one: People who sign up for Instagram accounts are, legally, supposed to be at least 13 years old. Which means 4th, 5th, and 6th graders are not supposed to be on Instagram, and those who are have lied about their ages to get an account. Maybe someday the law (COPPA) will change. It certainly doesn’t seem to reflect the realities of the current digital landscape. But until it changes, it’s the law; we and our kids should follow it. 

The article also references Socially Active, which is a tool for monitoring your kid's online presence.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Study identifies "The Problem with Rich Kids"

We used to think that prosperity was a buffer against life's problems. Education and affluence were keys to security and well-being. But check out this article, which speaks to the growing number of problem behaviors and circumstances that correlate with high family income.

From Psychology Today: The Problem With Rich Kids

My take? We need to invest in kids and build them up where it really matters - not in money, but in the social and emotional factors that make them whole. We need to make kids R.I.C.H.

See also:
Making Kids RICH: The "R" is for "Relationships"
Making Kids RICH: The "I" is for "Identity"
Making Kids RICH: The "C" is for "Christ"
Making Kids RICH: The "H" is for "Heart and Hands experiences"