Reclaiming Lost Children – 5 – Autonomy

How do we help those who have left the faith, both children and adults? Most of us, in our dismissing society, think once they are gone, they are gone for good. But God shows that isn’t true. There are things we can do. Learn howAutonomy plays a part.

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Today we are continuing our series titled, Reclaiming Lost Children . It’s the fifth one in the series. Presently, we’re looking at the four systems that are built into the human brain that cause us to be encouraged – encouraged in the sense that we’re encouraged to take action when those four areas are stimulated. The idea behind that is to learn what will encourage those who’ve left to return. What we’ve discovered is, that to overcome spiritual discouragement, we must take care of people’s spiritual needs. The main mission of the church is to make disciples. One of the byproducts of that effort is meeting the spiritual needs of the members.

Jesus said that His meat – His food, His spiritual nourishment – came from doing God’s will. So, we’ve seen that being included in the church – and consequently God’s will – and having a competency to contribute to the church encourages people spiritually. When we help people with these things, then we’re taking care of their spiritual needs. That’s what they need – to be a part of it.

To date we’ve talked about two of the four. We’ve talked about belonging and we’ve talked about competence . The third one, which we will work on today, is autonomy – the ability to make decisions about spiritual issues that affect us.

In the past year we’ve produced a series of presentations showing the connection between the spiritual development that people undergo and the stages of human development. We saw that, when a child is born, the task is to attach to mother and then to father. When that child gets a bit older, the child begins individuating from mother and father. Some have called this the terrible twos . The task at that time is to become distinct from others, rather than staying connected to them so tightly. So there’s a measure of autonomy that every two-year-old is trying to develop. That’s by design. God created them that way.

We have some two-year-old grandchildren right now. Their mother is trying to teach them manners. So, when you suggest something that they don’t want to do, which is almost everything, instead of screaming, “No!” they say, “No, no thank you.” It’s quite interesting to have a two-year-old look up at you and say, “No, no thank you,” – no matter what you ask them to do or suggest. You could say, “Would you like to eat some ice cream?” And they would say, “No, no thank you” and then start looking for it. It’s just so much fun at that age to say, “No,” they just can’t help but say it. While it’s very polite, the message is unmistakable: “I’ll do what I want when I want to do it.” That’s all part of human development.

I remember when our youngest was in that stage. Her older sister would try to boss her around, and she would say, “Don’t tell me what to do.” There it is – laid out there for you. We’re learning how at that age to do things for ourselves. So there’s this unmistakable drive that we can see in a two-year-old to make choices on their own.

Once the twos pass, then things generally tend to smooth out. Elementary-aged children generally are really cooperative unless something’s troubling them. It’s amazing how cooperative they can be.

I had a nine-year-old client in my private practice recently. His mother brought him in because he was getting in lots of fights and biting people at school. I believe he went to a Christian school, so that was especially troublesome, because everybody’s supposed to be really nice there. So, we started doing some sand-tray therapy and he produced this picture of a horrific monster destroying helpless people and making a wreck of their world and their lives. When asked to talk about it, he explained that every time he got in trouble at school, his mother would scream and curse at him, belittle him and call him obscene names. His mother was the monster. He wasn’t being cooperative, but it wasn’t because there was something wrong with him . It was because he was being mistreated by the one that he was wired to love and had no defense against. So his only strategy was to draw attention to himself, hopefully, to get some help. And it’s amazing how smart we are, because he did figure out a way to get some help for his problem. He’s already starting to become a very cooperative nine-year-old again – like he was before all this began. That’s just the way kids are. They go through stages.

After children get out of elementary school, they go through another stage where they have to assert themselves – where they have to do the work of completing themselves as individuals. That would be teenage. That’s why all the adults who are watching it call it rebelliousness. And it feels kind of like the two-year-old, except it’s more sophisticated and it’s a different level of individuation, where they finish becoming a full differentiated human being. This is a time that terrifies parents, because teenagers want to make all their own decisions while they’re usually in an extremely emotional time – all those hormones and chemicals flooding their brains and having very little experience to fall back on to boot. What do we do when we come to those kinds of times with them? Well, this all does have something to do with what we’re going to talk about today by the way. The best practice strategy there is to do the same thing that God does with us. He sets some rather broad boundaries for us, like the Ten Commandments, and then He lets us make all the choices within them. There are lots of choices that you can still make while you’re still keeping all of the Ten Commandments, aren’t there? All kinds of choices to make.

How does this work in real life for them? I was watching the news this week – the Connect With Kids section on the six o’clock news. And they were pointing out that high school girls who date older guys are statistically much more likely to have sex with them and, after that, to have sex with multiple partners, compared to kids that don’t go with anybody, or who go with someone their own age. So, what was the recommended best parental strategy? Well, it was obvious, you locked them in a cedar closet, nail it shut and don’t let them out until they’re twenty-five. No, that’s not what works! That is not what works. What they recommended was to allow girls to date, but to date guys more their own age – not “no dating,” but some rules that allow choice and a measure of experience.

How does God talk about that? Well, turn with me to Ecclesiastes 11, and verse 9, where God talks to young people. God doesn’t just deal with young people this way. He begins dealing with us this way when we are young people.

Ecc. 11:9 – Rejoice, o young man – or young woman – in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart. What does that mean? It means, do whatever you want. …and walk in the sight of your eyes, but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment. So, yeah, go ahead and have a good time. Do what you want. But, remember, that there are always consequences for every action. Some actions bring good consequences, and some bring sad ones. So, learn by doing, and while you’re doing it, realize you can get yourself in a lot of trouble, or you can make life easy for yourself. You get to choose. You get to decide.

So what does that have to do with autonomy and helping those who have left to come back to us – to reconcile them back again? Well, the point is that our past church culture – in it – we tried to control every aspect of the lives of young people – what they wore, the music they listened to, the friends they had, even the attitudes they had, the hairstyles they had. All the things that are really important to teenagers, we tried to monitor and to modulate and to control. We also, at the same time, prevented them from any meaningful participation in the church. We gave them zero choices of how to be involved in a meaningful way. Sometimes we provided opportunities, but not choice – you know, one thing you can do.

This year at the Feast there were a couple of young men who attended the Sabbath school lessons for teenagers. They were in their early twenties. They didn’t think they were equipped to teach the lessons themselves, but they thought they might be able to help the young teens understand what the older adult instructors were teaching them – sort of like interpreters. They perceived that sixty and sixty-five and seventy-year-old teachers weren’t going to be able to communicate effectively with fourteen-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds. So, from the account they gave me, they were able to help quite a bit. So this is an example of how two spiritually enterprising young guys were able to make a contribution, though no official channel for contribution was open to them. That’s the problem. Good for them! Who better to connect with young teens than young college-age people? They can talk the language. So what we need is a way to find these people early on and engage them.

I was talking to a man recently who told me that his young adult daughter had suggested to her church that they could use their Website to produce a young adults forum. She even pointed out that it wouldn’t cost them anything extra to do it, since the Website was already up and running and since she had forum software. So the reply came back that they didn’t have the personnel to monitor the forum. So when she suggested that the young adults themselves could monitor the forum, the leadership of the group balked, because they lacked trust in the young people to monitor themselves. You know, there’s that need to control everything and make sure everything’s done the way we want it. I was thinking about that whole thing, and in my experience working with young people, if you put the young people in charge of the monitoring, they will tend to be much stricter than the old people will. They don’t have any qualms about reading off somebody their own age when they think they’re not doing the right thing. Of course, the young people will just go and start their own forum, because they know a lot more about how to do things like than people my age anyway. In fact, they already have. But the distrust has created a breach in the relationship between the young people involved there and those who are in the leadership positions in that group. It’s also created something else as well.

When people are ready for autonomy – in this case, spiritual autonomy – and, when they are constricted and not allowed to exercise that, it causes spiritual arrest. They’re not able to develop themselves spiritually. If you read Hebrews, the 5 th chapter, toward the end there, Paul tells the Hebrews that they were spiritually immature – that they had suffered spiritual arrest. And he says the only way you can gain spiritual maturity is by having your senses exercised to discern good from evil. The way you exercise your senses – to discern good from evil – is the way we already read about there – you have to make some choices and see the results of the them. So, when young people are not allowed to make choices, it arrests their spiritual development.

I heard about an incident recently. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles. We won’t say which site. But there was a young man – I know him well – I’d spent a lot of time with him in years past – and a young woman, who I also know very well. This young man has posed himself as the great defender of the faith in some of the discussions I’ve seen him engage in with other people. He’s also learned that he can gain a measure of female attention by making sexist statements in public. The girls just can’t stand it and they have to call him on it, so he gets to talk to girls a lot because he says things like that. This young man and woman were not together as a couple, but they were together in a fairly large group of young adults. I’m told they were drinking. And I can just imagine that this fellow was on his grandstand defending the faith as I’ve seen him do so many times – really quite humorous, actually, the way he does it. I can imagine this young woman taking him on. As when alcohol is involved, things got out of hand. An argument developed. Here is a whole group of young people – not just those two, but a whole group – all of them who were there drinking too much. They have diminished sensitivity to their spiritual purpose. They come to the Feast every year to party. And there’s this sort of a lostness about them – an aimlessness – no reason to get up in the morning and make a difference. Just sort of hanging around the edges of spirituality, but not able to find a way to engage in it. To our shame, in most cases, we’ve not offered them a way, or encouraged them to find their own. My thought on that whole thing was, if they had been given the responsibility of producing the Feast, for example, and were engaged in that, that shameful event never would have happened. Neither one of those young people are inherently evil. I love both of them. But they’re just begging for reconciliation and don’t know where to go to find it. It’s a sad story.

So, I have another story to tell you – not a story, but a letter to read to you. This one, I think, is more of a good story. We have some sad examples, like the one I just mentioned, but every now and then, we have an example of someone who managed to rise above all the mistakes of those of us who are so controlling. In therapy we see children who thrive in spite of ill treatment and we call them resilient children. They should be depressed or discouraged, and yet somehow they manage to function effectively. This is a letter written by a spiritually resilient young man. (By the way, when I use the word young person, that usually means anybody who’s younger than I am, which would be fifty-eight or younger. The older I get the higher the bar is on what a young person is, so just bear in mind, this man is probably in his early thirties.) This was written several years ago by this young man – not to his pastor, but to one of the primary administrators of his organization that he was a part of. There are a lot of organizations, so this could be any one of a number. I’m not picking on any one in particular. I think the reason I’m even reading this letter is to show you how there are so many people across the board that feel this way about their past. So he says:

“As you know I was raised in the church and my family did their best to follow government, even when it was against their own best judgment. I think the crux of the matter is the difference of mindset. You have the ‘follow the leader traditional church government’ mindset, and I have the ‘follow the leader Jesus Christ’s government’ mindset. Your way says, ‘We all have to get their together and all speak the same thing, do the same thing, worship the same way, pray the same way, pay tithes the same way, dress the same way – the Godly way.’ Please don’t misunderstand me. There is a right way to do things. However, the right way revolves around the substance of the Godly heart we’re to be developing, and not around the ‘do it our way now and understand it later’ method. I cannot wait for a governing body to let me know when it is right to love my neighbor. The church has taught us, by all those little things spoken from the lectern, that say, to the effect, ‘it’s us against them.’ It has never been ‘us against them.’ It’s has always, and will always be, ‘us against Satan.’ He has fooled us with this ‘holier than thou’ supreme feeling that we like to perpetuate to make us feel right. What is the real problem in the church? Personal responsibility. How do you define it? Well, I define it as the following: I live my life everyday to be an example, a mirror Jesus Christ. I rely on God to lead my steps and show me how I can improve myself, how I can help others, how I can make a difference for those people who work for me, with me and around me, for my neighbor that lives next door and the one on the side of the road with the flat tire. Some days I do better than others. The difference between the good Samaritan and the rest is being ready to act and then doing it. The priest knew what to do. Why didn’t he? They could have all helped, but they chose not to. They decided that they should wait this time and pass by. The church has taught men to wait – to hold on to the truth once delivered – that we’re to be kings and priests in the world tomorrow. I would like to say that if we’re caught waiting for approval to do what’s right, we will not be there. We must each, individually be exemplifying that which we ought to be and say we are becoming. Christ says, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ I believe this. I live by this. And I don’t see much fruit coming from any of the organizations. I see a group of organizations mistreating each other and those they claim to be serving. Just a side note: I really did not understand the meaning of how to love my neighbor until I stopped paying all my offerings to one place and had to diligently search the scriptures to know how to pay or love them. I learned it is not about money. If I gave my offering to the church to distribute, I didn’t have to get to know the widows and orphans in my congregation, or find out how they were doing, or care about them enough to develop a relationship with them so they could feel like they could ask me for help if they needed it. The tradition of the church has actually put up a wall between me and my brother. We see each other once a week and don’t really talk about anything of value to God. There’s no iron sharpening iron – only the cover off our heads and the funnel sticking out. The rhetoric and line drawing and damage control takes up all our time. For example, the ruling on clapping for musical performance at services. When you make a ruling and apply it across the board, you create a stumbling block for those you are serving and you dumb down the sheep. Why can’t the sheep learn how to make judgments individually? Why can’t we learn to show appreciation. Why should you legislate away the opportunity to build character and skill? I will not wait to do what I know is right. I will not perpetuate the hatred of my brother. I will make a difference. I will not be afraid. I came to play! And there are others who came to play, too, and we will not wait any longer to be put in the game.”

So, no matter what your opinion about the issues that he brought up, can you feel the frustration? The futility? Can you hear the yearning for spiritual involvement there? And the bitterness at being excluded from it? That’s what I’m talking about!

Sometime ago, on the LifeResource Web log, I brought up the issue of the attrition we’ve suffered in the churches of God. And a man read what I wrote, and wrote back and suggested, “maybe they leave so they can grow up.” I think, for some of them, he really did hit the nail on the head. We’ve denied them their growth opportunities by trying to restrict their spiritual autonomy. Many have grown resentful, and they get discouraged and leave. They do that because they’re looking for something. They’re looking for a way to participate, and to use the abilities that they have to make choices, and to learn what they need to learn.

So, when there’s that kind of a breach, there also needs to be some kind of reconciliation before people can return and be spiritually healthy. So, that’s something that we all need to understand when we talk about reclaiming lost children – that there’s been a lot of damage done. To reclaim them there has to be some kind of reconciliation that can take place. So every time you look into the face of some young person who’s left – whether it’s your own child, or the child of one of your friends or just some young adult that you’ve known from your past – be mindful of that need for reconciliation if they’ve left us.

Sometimes the organizations they’ve been a part of, or people that they have known, have offended or discouraged them. Quite often the point of offense is over this autonomy issue. Sometimes it’s their own sins that have discouraged them. But then quite often it’s both. But either way, they need to be drawn into a spiritually vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ, so that they can begin to develop some spiritual maturity – to begin their spiritual journey of choice-making and learning the lessons from those choices.

How can we play a role in that? How can we play a role in the reconciliation of a generation. We are talking about how to encourage people spiritually. We have seen that belonging is one tool to combat alienation and rejection. We’ve talked about that. And we have seen that failure and frustration can be overcome by engaging people in their areas of competence. That is the second area of encouragement. And now we’re talking about how to activate the third area of encouragement, which is autonomy – allowing people within the group to make choices that affect their own life and the lives of others. So, how do we apply that principle when those we care about are outside our group? How do we demonstrate to those who have been offended that they can return and not be offended once again? That things are better? How can people outside learn that they would have autonomy if they returned? It’s a challenging thought. It’s a challenge to think about it, isn’t it?

How is it that God deals with us? He always teaches us what to do by the way He works with us. All of us were outside at one time. Yet, we’re into a relationship with Him. How did that happen?

The first thing to think about when we think about this topic is to make the point that God never makes us do anything. He always leaves all the choices up to us. He gives us our autonomy. So, if He doesn’t make us do anything, how does He move us toward Him? How does He reconcile us back to Himself? Turn with me to Hosea 11, and verse 3. This is a scripture written by Hosea after the children of Israel had been taken captive, and he said:

Hosea 11:3 – I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love. I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them. So God drew Israel back to Him with gentle cords. Anybody can break a gentle cord. We think about cords as something that constrict people, but if it is a gentle cord, you can break it. Ephraim was not made to come back to God. They were motivated to do so. So, when we approach people who have left, especially young people, we never want to make them feel obligated. It only brings up the past. It only goes contrary to what they’re working on in their development right now, which is being autonomous.

So we want to make gentle, low-key offers and overtures to people that have left us. We want to be casual and easy about it. “Hey, I was thinking about you the other day, and I was hoping that we could do something fun together, or go for coffee, or whatever.” It says, in verse 4:

V-4 – He also drew them with bands of love. On the Day of Atonement this year, we looked at what the latest brain research is teaching us about how our minds are organized. It turns out that we are all specifically designed for the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, which is what? Well, it’s eternal connection with God – at onement, right? What do you know? They’ve finally found out that the brain is designed for that. Our brains have had designed into them, at the neuronal level, a structure that seeks connectedness and seeks the answers to the great questions of life. We want to be at one with all that and with God. We were created for love – for connection.

Now, it’s true that many people in today’s world have let that part of their brain atrophy. And others have turned it off deliberately, so as to avoid being hurt, but I want you to look at a scripture with me, and let the meaning of it sink into your heart. I read this scripture when I get discouraged about the work that I’m trying to accomplish. It’s in John 12, and verse 32.

Jn. 12:32 – This is where Jesus said, And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself. That’s quite a statement! If we’re not drawn to God, then we’re not going to attain eternal life, are we? It all depends on whether we’re in a relationship with God. So a lot hangs on God’s ability to draw us rather than force us to respond to Him. Our lives depend on His ability to do that. And yet, Jesus Christ says that He’s eminently confident that He can do just exactly that with everybody – even the biggest “knothead,” the most pig-headed, spiritual ignorant that lives. Jesus is perfectly confident that He’s going to win and gain relationship. He knows how He’s created us. He knows that we respond to love. This is a major clue for us and how we deal with those we hope to draw back into relationship with God. We don’t want to try to force them. We leave all the choices to them, but we steadily love them, and express it in a low-level manner. We have to have some intelligence about how we do that.

I was talking to a young man on the phone last night, and he was telling me about his brother and his brother’s son. I guess his brother is quite a bit older than he is, because his brother’s son is nineteen. So there’s quite a long span there. He’s kind of in the middle. He was telling me that when he talks to his brother, it’s kind of like talking to a wall about religious things, but he can talk to his nephew about things. There’s some responsiveness there. And I said, “Well, that probably encourages you that you can talk to your nephew about these things.” And it does. And I said, “But what are you going to do about your brother?” He’s the challenge. He said, “Well, I can’t talk about it too much or too long.” He said, “Sometimes it’s better just not to talk about it at all.” He said, “I guess, probably the best thing I can do is just be with him and set an example and love him and not talk about it unless he wants to.” I said, “That’s a pretty good plan. Sometimes that’s the way it is, you know. And if you do that, then you’re doing the best you can do.” Sometimes, just asking somebody to go to coffee, and not talking about anything is the best you can do. To have some measure of connection is what we need to try to maintain, if they will let us. Sometimes they won’t, so we’re just doing what we can do. We’re looking for the opportunities that God lays before us, or asking Him to provide them and to show us what to do to meet other peoples’ needs.

It says also that “He took the yoke from their neck.” If you’ve got a yoke on your neck – they used to put prisoners in a yoke around their neck, and it was heavy and terrible to have it on there…. So, He took the yoke from their neck. What is that? That’s symbolic for relief .

I heard about some people who suffered damage to their home in a storm recently. They used to attend church, but they’d lost their way somewhere along the way. Some members of their former church came and helped them rebuild their home. Not one word about church was ever mentioned, but that family chose to begin attending again. Isn’t that interesting how that works? It reawakened them. Helping them reawakened them to the fact that they could choose to go back. They didn’t have to stay away. So, they activated their freedom of choice and returned.

He says finally, in Hosea, that He fed them. It’s so important when people choose to come back that they’re fed what they’re starving for, which, in our sermon today, we’re talking about spiritual autonomy. If they come back to the same situation they left, they’re just going to leave again. The church has to be a place where people can make spiritual choices to take spiritual action. It can’t be the same old, same old, where there’s a chosen few that get to make all the choices and everybody else just sits by.

That’s why, I contend, for the most of the multiple thousands of young people we’ve lost, it’s too late for the large groups. Why do I think that? Well, I think that because, if you look outside of the Church of God culture and you look at all the other major denominations in Western religion, you’ll see that the same exact thing is happening there that is happening with us. A change has taken place in the way young people think about things that a lot of us who are older haven’t picked up on. They’re not content to just follow along. They want to be involved. And I’m not all together sure why that’s happened. I know that television and video games rewire the brain differently. And I know that we have lived in the West, between two and four hundred years, under democratic culture. Somebody said that people no longer act like sheep. They act like cats. And the younger you are, the more likely that is to be true, I would think. So, I don’t know what the reasons are, but I just know that the things I hear from young people tell me that the large congregations, and all that sort of thing, aren’t as effective for them as they used to be – or for us, as I was growing up.

Another reason I think this way is, because it’s so much easier to draw wounded people into a small, intimate, autonomous, spiritual environment, like a home fellowship. There the focus is automatically on the people , rather than on some offending group. The focus is on relationships, instead of conformity. And the focus is on nurturance , instead of compliance. It just happens automatically. You don’t have to have any effort to make it that way.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I believe that we all do need some sort of large cooperative connection. We can do a lot more together than we can separated. But the thing I keep hearing from people is connection without control . See, people are designed for structure. We all need it. Along with being autonomous, we all need structure, so that we can participate together, because we’re social creatures. But, I also see that services, with an hour long sermon, by somebody the audience doesn’t know about a topic they’re not excited about, doesn’t move young people, like it used to me. When I was eighteen, I went to church, and that’s what I got every time I was there at college – a sermon about a topic that I wasn’t excited about by somebody I didn’t know. I learned a lot! But that isn’t what teaches people things these days.

I was talking to a young man recently at the Feast, and he was telling me that some of these younger guys stayed up so late one night, and drank so much they couldn’t make it to services the next day. Besides what I mentioned earlier about arrested spiritual development, what that tells me is, that they didn’t find services worth attending. Otherwise, they would have called it quits earlier and drank less. If it was really something they really wanted to go to, they’d have made sure they were there. Now I realize that many people who are hearing this presentation have spent their whole lives attending conventional church services, and I certainly wouldn’t want you to stop doing that if that’s what you like to do. And I also realize that when I suggest changing things, that can be upsetting to some people. So, if you’re one of them, I’m sorry, but don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just passing on what the spiritually healthy younger people tell me. And if we’re going to reclaim those we’ve lost, we cannot continue doing what we’ve done in the past. That caused a problem and it’s not going to affect a solution. If we’re going to make things different and better, we’re going to have to get serious about changing things. And that means putting the ax to a few sacred cows.

So, I’m suggesting changes based on the very latest scientific findings about what motivates people to change, based on the Word of God and based on feedback from real young people. And there are some adults listening to this who may be thinking, “We need to start some young adults groups for them.” Well, the intention is good, but even that’s just more of the same. Why don’t we encourage them to start some young adult groups of their own?

Do you remember how Jesus trained His disciples? He sent seventy of them out in groups of two – trained, but unsupervised – completely on their own to do the work! And then when they came back, they got together and they debriefed the experience. And then a few years later, He left! And it was all up to them. Do we know too much about organization to follow Jesus’ own example? Or is it that we lack faith in Christ to produce the same fruits in us? At this point, if I’m to model what I’ve preaching – which is autonomy – the choice of what I’m saying is completely up to you.

So, we’ve covered three of the four systems of encouragement, as we talked about autonomy today. Next time we will discuss the last system – that of altruistic involvement or service . That would be the fourth and final system of encouragement that they’ve discovered wired into the human brain. Then from there, in the final presentation of this series – which would be the seventh one – we will discuss the most potent tool of reconciliation of all.