|Eduardo Rojas, from Langham Bolivia, presenting Langham's hopes for a |
course in Trinidad to the locals, last night. See prayer points, below.
My gap year here in Trinidad was instructive on several levels, but especially in getting me thinking about issues of faith, many for the first time. Seeing how things were done in a very different church culture woke me up to the fact that, in practice, there's very often more than one way to skin a cat. Having a ringside seat on the very different way that, say, the offering was given each week in church, or a generally more conservative attitude towards women's roles here, sent me back to the Bible and forced me to think carefully about what God, and not humankind, had to say on these issues.
One early development that year certainly had me sitting up and taking notice. One of the young Bolivian men in the church began going out with one of the long-term volunteers. But things weren't exactly done as they were among, say, my teenage friends in Scotland. And, of course, still a teenager myself -- because you've basically managed to work out everything by that point, right? -- I afforded my contemporaries a ludicrous level of respect in these areas. Even in church circles in Scotland, a camp flirtation would be followed by a largely unsupervised dating period of weeks or months (they wouldn't last longer than that, the significance of which hadn't quite yet dawned on me).
So when Walter and Nikki stood up before the church that October evening and announced that they were beginning a year-long 'courtship' (a word I'd thought had been buried somewhere in Victorian England), that the relationship would be lived out under the watchful glance of trustworthy friends, and that their intention was to marry a year down the line, I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, and immediately started asking questions of people in the church. Why insist on marriage -- isn't that for 30-year-olds with several promotions behind them? Why no privacy? Why the public service announcement?
Why, I was the very poster child of naïveté!
15 years later and, quite frankly, I long ago lost count of the number of young Christians I have known here, many in active ministry, who have not darkened the door of a church for years, having made terrible decisions in the area of sex and relationships. Something I learned early on when we came back here in 2010 (seven years since we'd been here previously) was not to inquire if I noticed a conspicuous absence in the church, because the answer would probably only disappoint me. I know as well as anyone that things are less than puritanical in the developed world, but compared to the hot-blooded natives round these here parts, the UK and Canada at the moment are about as sexually charged as an episode of Antiques Roadshow. The slew of Miss Somewhere-or-other contestants are idolised; soft-pornographic billboards advertising beer and motorcycle parts are ten-a-penny; men have two, sometimes even three, families on the go at once; mobile phones in secondary schools have simply become the go-to place to let your friends see another side of you, in a very real and disturbing sense.
More than anything, though, Trinidad is an especially poor city by Bolivian standards, and poverty has a way of awakening people to sex and sexuality at a far earlier stage in life. It is not unusual for three or four generations to live in the same home, and I would think the average reader hardly requires a detailed explanation to understand that, in such cramped conditions, children cotton on to things quickly.
Walter and Nikki's pursuit of support and accountability, then, strikes me as a shining example of the way things really ought to be done in such choppy waters (they are, by the way, happily married with a daughter in the USA; a great couple!). Sadly, young people here rarely declare their intentions so publicly, and all too often the first we've known of such relationships has been a surprise pregnancy. Career plans are then usually abandoned, guilt takes hold, and the church loses another great asset. Rare and greatly prized are those young people who make it to the other side of 20 unscathed.
I touch on this issue because, in our young church, it has reared its head this week in a big way, in a way that we have, quite frankly, been unprepared for. As I've mentioned before, a group of five young people were invited on to youth leadership about three months ago. It has transpired in the last few weeks that one of these young people is still in a relationship that we had been told was over and done with. We are told that the romantic partner in question is a Christian, and yet the covert nature of the relationship raises serious questions about this young person's integrity.
The whole situation has caused us, as leaders, to think long and hard as to the church's stance on such issues. A difficulty we face is that, with most of these young people coming from non-Christian homes, they tend to have their parents' full endorsement for any such relationship. We can't claim to uphold Scripture as the word of God whilst questioning parental authority.
Yet at the same time, even if we did have such authority, could we realistically tell them not to engage in any such relationships? We only see these young people for a few hours each week; how on earth could we possibly know how they were behaving day-to-day?
And so, after much thought and prayer, we've decided to meet with these young people before their regular youth meeting tonight, to put the following to them.
Firstly, we can't tell them what to do, but we can certainly recommend how they should live their lives as highly visible Christian leaders. And our strong recommendation is that they do not pursue courtship at this stage of their lives (bear in mind also that these young people are 16- and 17-years-old; hardly ready for commitment even by non-Christian standards).
Secondly, if they choose to pursue such a relationship regardless, they must: a) have full parental permission; b) introduce the person to us as church leaders so we can get to know them, their faith, and their intentions for the relationship; and c) announce the relationship publicly to the church and state marital intentions, seeking the congregation's support and accountability. Failure to comply with any of the three will result in us asking the young person in question to step down from leadership.
I'll be honest: though the rigorous steps we're asking them to take if they wish to pursue a relationship are, in our opinion, correct and God-honouring in a culture fraught with minefields in this area, we'll be much happier as leaders if they serve as a deterrent at this formative stage of their lives.
If all of this strikes you westerners as legalistic, joy-killing and puritanical, bear in mind the heartache we have experienced time and again over the many young lives we've seen ruined by simply following the pattern of this culture. But if you have experience yourself in this area, or anything you'd like to add, I'd be really interested to hear what you have to say. As I said, we are a young church, with young leaders (I'm referring to the eldership here), and the wisdom that only experience can supply is always welcome! Thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Please pray for our meeting with the young leaders tonight (Saturday), and for the young people as they think seriously about this issue. Pray that these requirements would be seen by the young people for what they ultimately are: an expression of our deep love and concern for them, and a desire to protect them stumbling. We are going to give them a couple of weeks to decide what steps they are prepared to take. Pray that these steps would only go to strengthen the witness of the youth group here in Trinidad.
- For the new men's ministry, which begins next Friday evening in our home. The idea is to meet once every couple of weeks to study the Bible together. We'll most likely kick things off this week with a meal and a simple discussion as to the great need in the world and in our culture for men of faith and integrity.
- Amanda has had to deal with a few difficult issues in her HR role at Fundación Totaí this week (often involving workers who are Christians, which can take the frustration to a whole new level). Amanda is a very quick learner, but is keenly aware at the moment of her lack of experience in this area. Pray for encouragement and wisdom.
- Thank you for your prayers for the Langham Bolivia information meeting. We were really encouraged to see about 30 Bible teachers from all over Trinidad attend the meeting, and the enthusiasm for starting a new course was tangible. The idea is that each year, over three years, there is an annual four-day residential conference, in which the principles of expository teaching are taught; this is led by Langham Bolivia staff themselves. But in the months between conferences, the conference attendees are to meet in small groups at least once a month, to preach to one another on a given topic, and offer constructive feedback. In other words, the course really depends heavily on the commitment of the participants. As Eduardo said last night, the Bolivian church is full of eventistas, i.e., people who get excited for conferences and camps, particularly when there is an authority figure from outside taking the reins, but who struggle to apply this learning to their ministry. So a lot of prayer is still needed here. Eduardo has formed a local organising committee comprising three of last night's attendees (including Craig), with the view to working towards a conference over the weekend of the 6th of June. Please pray, then, for Craig and the other committee members as they plan for this and promote the course between now and June, and for the course to make a lasting impact over the next three years, in order that the word of God would be taught faithfully in Trinidad's churches, and God would be glorified.
- We both had some really meaningful discipleship sessions this week. Amanda met with Yoselín properly for the first time this year. Amanda had been meeting with her once a week for two years before we left. Craig began meeting with Daniel, our new Cuban friend whom you may remember from a post a few weeks ago. Both are enthusiastic to grow in their faith, but lacking in support, so please pray for Yoselín and Daniel.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!
Craig & Amanda