Joey Sparks
31Aug/060

06.04.06 Bulletin Article — Summer Strengthening

Alas...school is out for our student-aged young people. One result of the ending of the school year is increased activities of the Youth Group. Here at Midway, there are many opportunities to serve others and grow within during the summer months. Generally, children have more time (and energy) to commit to activities with their Youth Group during the summer. With this in mind, I want us to look at some scriptural suggestions for making the most out of our summers.

DO as much as you can. One of Satan’s most effective methods of “catching” Christians is inactivity. This is why the writers of the New Testament letters encouraged their audiences to be active. Paul encouraged brethren to “be strong” (strength comes from “working out”) and to “rejoice.” Peter continually persuaded Christians to “grow,” a term which necessarily involves action. John stressed the Christian’s “walk,” another term that is inseparable from action. As 21st Century Christians, we too must be active. In order to grow into strong Christians and avoid Satan’s snares, we must be actively godly...even during the summer months.

DON’T get burnt out. One of the dangers of “doing” all the time is burn out. Youth ministers and preachers alike are cautioned not to do too much so as to be ineffective in the Lord’s work. If you really are sick...it’s okay to not do something. If you really are exhausted…the Lord understands. The good you attempt to accomplish can’t occur if you’re unable to function. Don’t get me wrong, the Lord wants us all active; trust me, though, he wants us effective (Gal. 6:9).

DO spend as much time with one another as possible. Spending time with other young people who want to do what’s right is a wonderful way to strengthen one’s spirituality (Ecc. 4:9-12). Having Christian accountability is an immeasurable blessing handed down from God. Some Christians scoff at the idea of young people and families going to Six Flags, etc. However, those opportunities can build strong Biblical fellowship that can be relied upon in the future.

DON’T (knowingly or unknowingly) push others away from Christ. Unfortunately, because of the feelings and perceptions we experience as humans, we can feel left out because of the actions of others. The key to figuring out these sticky situations is consistency. People must be active and around to feel “accepted.” However, others who are active need to be aware of how their actions may cause others to leave the group. Actions can be taken or words can be said that are intentionally hurtful. These things are shameful in and of themselves (James 3:10; 4:11-12). In addition, these hurtful actions can result in that beautiful child of God departing his/her eternal security. May we be aware of how our actions and words make others feel; the Lord expects us to; we certainly want to be treated the same way (Matt. 7:12).

DO spend time with your family. Although most parents still have to work during the summer (and some children do as well), the summer can be a great time for family time. Being together is important for children, moms, dads, and brothers and sisters. Sharing good “QT” (quality time) is the best way for parents to raise their children in the Lord through knowledge, experience, and example (Eph. 6:1-4).

DON’T willingly forsake assemblies of the Lord’s church. God designed worship to praise and honor Him. He designed assembling to encourage and love one another. Both are vitally necessary to our spiritual well-being. Notice that Hebrews 10:19-25 emphasizes both aspects: worship (vs. 19-22) and fellowship through assembling together (vs. 24-25). I know the weather is beautiful and the fish are biting in the cool hours of the day. I know that family vacations are worthwhile (see previous point). However, I also know that it is God who as given us beautiful days, feisty fish, gardens to grow, and magnificent vacation locales. He wants us to enjoy His blessings. He also wants to be praised and thanked for them as well (worship). He also wants us to remember that other Christians need encouragement (fellowship).

DO try to reach out to non-Christians. Summer can be a particularly effective time to bring visitors to church-related functions. Since worship services and similar settings can seem “intimidating” (remember, God designed them to praise Him), fellowship-oriented activities are good opportunities for outreach. Our Midway Day Out on June 17, for example, provides a good opportunity to bring other young people (6th grade and down) and their parents. May we never forget our charge to reach others with the gospel (Matt. 28:19).

DON’T let your spiritual guard down. One of the biggest dangers with summer vacation is to take a spiritual vacation. Since we’re off from school, sometimes we unknowingly take off from Christ. This can happen with “majors” like improper sexual activity, drinking, and drugs. It can also occur with so-called “minors” like entertainment choices (concerts, movies, TV shows, and music) and dress (revealing clothing, sexually suggestive content, etc.). May we always remember our task to be as pure as possible...even during the summer (Eph. 5:1-17).

We look forward to the opportunities presented us in the coming months of the summer of ‘06...may we give them back to Him.

31Aug/060

05.28.06 Bulletin Article — More Graduation Advice

Last week, I began to dispense what I thought were helpful hints to this year’s High School graduates. As a reminder, I want to emphasize that most of my “advice” is probably not worth the paper this is printed on, but I hope it will cause some good thinking about life’s issues, and more importantly a search of the scriptures regarding these varied topics. The most important of advice is the “keep the faith.” Through Bible study, prayer, active church participation, evangelism, and the like, we can ensure our faithfulness before God. In the grand scheme of things, that is most important. May we always take the steps to grow in the faith.

Now more other “advice:”
The financial decisions you make now are important. How you choose to spend your graduation gift money, how you choose to spend your regular paycheck, how you view money will all factor into your financial stability/instability in the future. The biggest factor in how much money you have in the future (that is what you’re thinking about, right?) is how you handle money. If you’ve always spent more than you’ve had, whether it’s $1, $10, or $100, you’ll probably always spend all you have and more even if you’re making $50,000 a year. However, if you’re thrifty with your income, you will probably have a surplus even if you make $10,000 a year. The point is: be responsible now. Only spend what you have now. Your habits and perspectives will carry over into your adult lives.

Learn how to learn. No matter your grades in High School, you likely did very little studying. No matter you’re brilliance, you’ll have to study and have to prove you’re knowledge in college. The key to doing well in college is not memorizing answers to tests, but to learn. Always be willing to learn; even outside the classroom. Chances are, it will pay off inside the classroom. If you learn the material in your classes, you will do fine on the tests. If you merely study for the tests, you may not do fine in the class. Teachers are much more lenient with you if they know you know your stuff and know you’ve put effort into learning. Never be above learning; there’s always something else to discover.

Make your own decisions. Discovering who you are and what is important to you is a very crucial process that you will undergo during the next several years. In doing this, you need to be true to yourself. The Word of God should influence and guide your decisions, of course, but you need to be the wonderful individual God created you to be. If you can serve God and others best as a teacher, even though doctors make more money, be a teacher! If it’s best for you to move away to college to open more doors and deepen your faith, then move away to college (Lord willing a Christian University)! Be sure you make the right decision...be sure it’s yours.

Listen to those who love you. “But I thought you said to make my own decisions?” Yes, but we need to remember that who we are is a combination of our various influences and experiences. Even if you don’t always agree with your parents, grandparents, friends, or (gasp!) Youth Minister, remember that we all love you and want the best for you in your service to God. The words and thoughts offered by all of these are given to help you make the most of your life. Make your own decisions; but don’t completely forsake those who love you.

I suppose this concludes my “advice” for the time being. Keep your faith in God, and keep it strong. Best of luck in all you do.

31Aug/060

05.21.06 Bulletin Article — …And Don’t Forget the Sunscreen

Seven years ago, the British record producer Baz Luhrmann released a single that was a combination of mixed electronic music and Luhrmann’s advice to the Class of ‘99. The title was “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” If you’ve not heard it, it’s interesting and insightful; you should download it and listen to it on your iPod; or you can listen to it for up to five times for free at Napster.com. I mention this to provide an example of someone giving high school graduates advice for the future. He basically included a “disclaimer” of sorts at the beginning.
It reads: “Wear Sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proven by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.”

I suppose my modification would be: “Keep the Faith. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, faith would be it. The long-long-long-long term benefits of faith have been assured by God (Heb. 11:6) whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own personal experiences.”

Now for my “advice:”

Keys to Faith: Bible Study. Of all the things you’ve already learned and will soon learn in college, the Word of God trumps them all. You will never know what to do in every situation you face. By depending on the Bible though, you can come close. And for those times you still don’t know what to do, you have confidence in the One who knows all (Prov. 3:5-6). To carry this to a practical end, you can make a tremendous investment by using some of your graduation money (I know you’re gonna get a lot, don’t pretend otherwise) to buy a good study Bible. I know you’ll get a nice new Bible from the elders here at Midway, and you should use it and be thankful for it. In addition, you should look into getting a Bible that has study helps and features. My personal recommendation is the Thompson Chain Reference Study Bible. It is available in all of the “major” translations. It’s most helpful study features lead you through the Word instead of telling you what it says. I’m still benefiting from my Study Bible purchase 5 years ago.

Keys to Faith: Prayer. This will cost you no money! You can never pray too much. You will have more questions and face life’s biggest decisions during the next several years than you’ve ever had before. Depend on God more than you ever have before. There’s a reason Paul said, “Pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17—it’s that important.

Other advice that’s less important: A College Degree is a big deal. No matter what you think now, you need to go to college. More importantly, you need to get a degree. Unless you cheat in some big way (which you shouldn’t do), they really can’t ever take your degree away from you. I know there are good opportunities that do not require a degree. However, I’m guessing that those opportunities would rather have someone with a degree over someone without one.

Experience is a big deal. Although college degrees are priceless, so is experience. In order to have the most success right out of college, you need a two-pronged approach. College learning and hands-on learning. What you do for your summer job can go a long way in helping you get your feet in to doors later. Even if it involves an unpaid internship (it won’t be the end of the world), the pay off in the future will make up for it.

Maximize your time. Staying up late at night when your at this stage in life is a rite of passage. However, you need to take advantage of it. Don’t stay up every evening watching Sportscenter re-runs or playing Playstation. If you stay up past midnight regularly, it needs to be for homework or other important purposes. You can catch up eventually on your sleep, but you’ll never be able to catch up on missed academic opportunities.

Maximize your space. I didn’t finish with my “advice,” so I will conclude next week...

31Aug/060

04.02.06 Bulletin Article — The Good of a Prom Alternative

During the Spring of every school year, there are many things going on to make life seem extremely busy. One of the yearly rituals is the Prom. Most are familiar with the general concept of the Prom and most have heard the arguments against going to the Prom. On the other hand, during my four years in high school and the five years since, I have yet to hear a Christian logically show why going to the Prom is a beneficial thing. That way of thinking sounds absurd to some young people, but it is the way we are to operate as Christians. It’s the way we know what to do during worship, church organization, etc.: we do only the things we know God approves of.

Instead of arguing against the Prom for the rest of this article, I want to briefly observe some of the good things about Prom Alternatives. In this area, it’s impossible to say that there aren’t other options to the Prom. Not only are we having a Prom Alternative here at Midway on April 7th, but 6th Avenue will have one on April 22nd, and Adamsville will have one sometime as well. In the spirit of Christianity, I want us to see why we should take advantage of Prom Alternatives.

You get to be with your Christian friends. If we are to make choices that reflect proper spiritual priorities, choosing to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ shows who is most important in our lives. So many of us complain about the worldly influences we face while at school; does it really make sense to choose to be around them on this night instead of our Christian friends? The Hebrews writer says in 3:13, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called ’Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” A Prom Alternative is one such way to encourage fellow Christians.

You get to be around morally wholesome activities. You can come to the Prom Alternative and not have to worry about people dancing immorally, drinking alcohol, participating in sexual acts, dressing immodestly, or using foul language. Again, if we’re continually fighting temptations as young people, what do we gain from choosing to be somewhere where those actions are allowed and in some cases even encouraged? In Ephesians 5:3, Paul says, “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints.” The phrase “not even be named among you” is translated by some as “not even be a hint.” At the end of a long list of immoral actions in Romans 1, Paul says the following in verse 32, “knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.” Going to a Prom Alternative can help to eliminate the “hints” of immorality in our lives and can keep us from appearing to approve of those who practice immorality. By attending a Prom Alternative with other Christians, you get to do things with them that will help you get to heaven.

Make a visible stand for God. We as young people need all the help we can get if we are to bring our fellow classmates to Christ. Making stands when it seems that “everyone else” is doing something sets a strong example for other Christians as well as those who aren’t Christians. I have a friend who went to a fairly large high school who did not go to his Junior or Senior Prom. During his Junior year, he had to respond to the questions: “Who are you going to Prom with?”, “Where are you eating for Prom?”, and “Why aren’t you going to Prom?” He never felt as though he answered the questions well; he always stuttered out something like “I don’t believe in dancing” or “It’s a religious thing.” As his Senior Prom approached, he made up his mind he was going to be more prepared to answer questions and would stand up for his faith in God. Much to his surprise, none of his friends and classmates asked him about the upcoming Prom. They already knew where he stood and they already knew the decision he was going to make. Isn’t that a true example of “letting our lights shine” (Matt. 5:16)? If you use opportunities like Prom to make a stand for what’s right, others will notice—and believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Exercise your opportunity to make your own decisions. One of the things that bugs me most about the Prom is the pressure we feel as young people to go. Contrary to what other 17 and 18 year olds think, you don’t have to go to Prom to be popular, loved, or somebody’s friend. You, as a young person, have the right to make your own decisions. You can make those decisions, remain true to yourself and to your God, and still be liked by your close friends. If you choose to go to a Prom Alternative, you make the choice to do what’s right and to be your own individual. In Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul says, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” It’s important that we make the best decisions for us...today. Stand up for what’s right and make your own decision...we’d love for you to join us at our Prom Alternative or another in the area.

God bless as we stand up for Him.

31Aug/060

03.05.06 Bulletin Article — Be Careful About High School

We are often reminded of the potential dangers that lie within children’s High School years. The most glaring of these dangers is peer pressure as it relates to alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, cheating, and other immoral actions. We all should be aware of peer pressure and the immoral dangers associated with it. May we make stands to keep our lives pure from these sins.

The longer I have the privilege work with young people—and the more I reflect on my time in High School—the more I realize that there might be a bigger “danger” to our Christian young people than that of peer pressure. I think the biggest obstacle Christian teenagers face is the temptation to make High School the most important thing in their lives. Satan doesn’t have to throw beer, marijuana, or sex in all Christians’ faces to get their soul. He can place grades, clubs, sports, or popularity on shiny and attractive trophies within our young peoples’ reaches. If they acknowledge that anything is more important than their service to God, then Satan knows he will always have a stronghold on their hearts.

I know that I’m now an “oldie” in the eyes of today’s teenagers; they probably don’t realize how recently I was a High School student myself. I was there; I took the tests, served in the clubs, had friends, did the extra-curriculars, and did most of them well. With all due respect to Paul as an inspired author of scripture, I want to outline my “qualifications” as a High School student based on Philippians 3:4-6. “though I myself have reason for confidence in High School also. If anyone thinks he or she has reason for confidence in High School, I have more: graduated number one in Senior class of 176, finished with a 4.45 GPA, received Honors diploma, a students’ student; as to clubs, a member of National Honor Society, Beta Club, Photography Club (Vice-President),Mu Alpha Theta (President); as to band, First Chair French Horn, Senior Band Captain, Two-time All-State participant; as to friends and popularity, numerous close friendships and ‘Best All- Around’ in Who’s Who.”

Like Paul, I include those things not to brag about my time in High School. Those things certainly have sentimental value, but they don’t matter much to me anymore. I mention my High School resume to show that I know that it is important and that there is plenty of good in which to be involved. However, amongst all of those personal accomplishments lie squandered opportunities to do good things for the spirituality of myself and others. Within the grandeur of “being the best” existed choices that led to immorality. I experienced much and learned much during many valuable opportunities while a High School student. However, the most important thing I learned about High School was that it wasn’t the most important thing. The sooner our Christian teenagers learn this golden thread, the better.

Going back to Paul, he said that he gave up all of his Jewish accomplishments for the cause of Christ (Phil. 3:7-11). Looking back, I gladly would have given up all of those great accomplishments to save the souls of some of my friends. I gladly would have given those things up if I had known how important it was to have a 100% spiritual focus. The point is not that High School is completely unimportant. Rather, the point is that those four years are some of the most formative years in our young lives. What we do then will be a good indicator of what we do afterward. As a servant to Christian young people—and Lord willing as a future parent—it is scary to know that misplacing priorities that early in life can lead to much of the same as students grow up.

We as Christians are reeling from that gaudy statistical percentage of how many of our young people are falling away after they leave the home (anywhere from 50% to 75%). One of the ways to lower it is to instill within them that their relationship to God is the most important relationship they are involved in. That’s the point of Proverbs 22:6. Train them correctly when they are young, and they will meet spiritual success when they are old. The only way to ensure the latter clause of that verse is to carry out the first clause.

As we reflect on the monumental task before us, we would do well to remember Paul’s words from verses 12-16 of Philippians 3. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus…only let us hold true to what we have attained.” His message to us is “don’t lose ground & keep on gaining ground.” May we do so throughout High School to better secure our spiritual growth beyond those memorable years. May we as adults do all we can to encourage our teenagers in an upward spiritual direction.

Thanks for all the good that is accomplished here at Midway. God bless this week.

31Aug/060

02.19.06 Bulletin Article — Backyard Tag, Tug-of-War, and (Father) May I?

We had a great crowd at this past week’s T.N.T. (Totally Neat Thursday)! Thanks to everyone for coming and supporting this great opportunity.

For the past several T.N.T.’s, we’ve been able to go outside because of the unseasonably warm weather. Typically, I tell them that various trees, poles, and other landmarks are the boundaries for the various group games we play. Without fail, those imaginary boundaries don’t work very well. This past Thursday, I took some white crepe paper and made official, noticeable boundaries. From my perspective, it seemed the kids had more fun inside the clear-cut boundaries than they did within the imaginary ones of previous meetings. I think there’s a strong lesson for us all: we need boundaries.

Fortunately, God has given us boundaries. Unfortunately, it’s a culturally popular thing to throw out the importance of boundaries. Even many professed “Christians” deny the existence of numerous Divine boundaries. This area is likely where Postmodernism has hit the hardest. Postmodernism basically asserts that we only have the authority to set our own personal boundaries. I can’t tell you what to think or do; you can’t tell me what to think or do. Sadly, many of today’s brightest minds are treating God with this postmodernistic attitude. May we be thankful for God’s boundaries; may we abide by them in order to please Him.

This issue will be at the heart of a more specific issue over the next several months. One hundred years ago (1906), the official census recognized the separation between the churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)/Independent Christian Churches. Now many of our brethren are pushing for an official reconciliation between the groups. However, they are pushing for the churches of Christ to make an apology of sorts—admit that we were wrong 100 years ago to sever fellowship. The issues at the heart of the division involved instrumental music, fellowship with denominational bodies, women in leadership roles, and denominational methods of church organization. Essentially, many who are members of the Lord’s church are throwing out the boundaries and saying we were wrong to uphold the boundaries 100 years ago. In this dramatic, adult version of backyard games, religious leaders are opting for no boundaries even when God has clearly defined them.

What are we to do? Uphold the truth about the boundaries God has given us. We don’t have to be rude about the issues (Matt. 10:16). We don’t have to abandon loving responses (Eph. 4:15). We can be tactful and appropriate while being firm about God’s authority in spiritually significant matters (Jude 3).

How God’s authority is handled is at stake in this religious tug-of-war. He has spoken about what he accepts musically in worship (Heb. 13:15). He has identified those who have fully obeyed the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41-42, 47). We only have the right to obey his specifics in these and other areas of our service to Him.

We are playing a spiritual “Mother, May I?” game as we try to reach the presence of our glorious Creator. He has told us the steps to take. We can’t choose to skip if we’ve been told to walk. We can’t take 7 steps if we’ve been told to take 5. May we remain consistent in our respect for God’s authority; may we uphold and defend it no matter what. Principally, obedience to God’s authority is as easy as children’s games. Spiritually speaking, the rewards and consequences are much greater (Matt. 7:24-27; Heb. 10:26-31).

31Aug/060

08.13.06 Bulletin Article — Back to School Reminders

There is much that is associated with the back-to-school season. The supply lists have been filled, new clothes have been bought, and lunchmeat has been carefully placed on loaf bread. Something else associated with the start of the school year is the obvious end of the summer.

Having active summers with the youth group here causes us to realize how much we miss out on once school goes back in session. Spiritually speaking, most of us grow considerably during the summer months. The reasons for this growth are simple: we are around spiritually-minded people more, we do spiritually-focused things, and we are around worldly influences less. The secret to growth throughout the school year is simple as well: stay around spiritually-minded people, do spiritually focused things, and limit our exposure to worldly influences. The prescription for spiritual growth will work no matter the time of year: summer break , school year, spring, or fall. Let’s do our best to continue our upward spiritual growth throughout this school year and beyond. Here are some other tips to remember throughout the school year:

Don’t forget the changes you may have made this summer. Many of us, whether child or adult, have made spiritual changes during the summer months. These changes weren’t made on a whim or in a flippant manner. We shouldn’t treat them as such once we return to school. Notice Peter’s strong warning in 2 Peter 2:20-21, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” May we not be guilty of going back on our commitment to the Lord.

Don’t feel “bad” for doing “good.” There will be many instances during the year where we have to choose to stand up and do what’s right or give in and do what’s wrong. It could be easy to let our feelings of apprehension keep us from making the right choice. We need to choose what’s right because it’s what’s right. Listen to Peter’s words again, here in 1 Peter 3:13-17, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?...For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” We may face persecution for doing the will of God, but it is still the right thing to do. May we have the strength and confidence to do good and feel good about it.

Value the Lord’s work more than school work. I will be the first one to argue for the importance of school work. However, nothing is more important than the work of the Lord. Grades are a way of measuring your level of learning, so they represent something important. However, we are in a continual “course” where we are expected to teach, serve, and encourage others in the name of the Lord. He expects much of us...year ‘round. Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” Jesus doesn’t say, “Seek only…” His point is to make the Lord’s business our most important business. Let’s do our best in our school work, but let’s remember that there is always work to be done for the Lord.

Make changes TODAY if needed! Earlier, we reminded ourselves to hold firm on the spiritual changes we may have made during this summer. If some of us didn’t make spiritual changes, now is the best time. If you need to become a Christian through obedience and baptism, make that choice today! If you need to talk to someone about how to make your life right with the Lord, do so without delaying. The school year is an excellent time to reflect and make these needed changes. We hope you’ll reflect on your life and do what it takes. Ephesians 5:16 says “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” May we make the best use of today in making our lives right.

The Lord has blessed us greatly with opportunities to bring glory to His name. May he continue to do so and may we continue to give our lives to Him.