Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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Growing Spiritually Strong Families

How can you grow a spiritually strong family? This is one of the questions our church is exploring as we began a series last week called, Building a Home: One Room at a Time. We’ll go from room to room in a typical house and talk about things like parenting, marriage, siblings, children, communication and conflict resolution. In my reading this past week I found a helpful little handbook by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called, Growing a Spiritually Strong Family. They had ten tips for couples who want their families to grow deeply in the soil of God’s love:

  1. Sink your roots: The best thing you can do for your kids is develop your own relationship with Jesus through the classic means of grace, like prayer, confession, reading the Bible and cultivating deep relationships with other believers. It starts with you. You can’t pass on anything you haven’t fully bought into.
  2. Pray with your mate: This may be the hardest yet most significant thing for couples to do. Less than 8% of believing couples pray together regularly and only 3% pray together every day. If you do this, I guarantee it will change your marriage! It’s hard to be mad at each other and pray at the same time. Find creative ways to do this. My wife and I have some of our best prayer times on long walks, and we’ve seen some remarkable answers.
  3. Give your children you: The greatest gift you can give your child is yourself. Carve out time for them. When they’re in the mood to talk, drop everything and give them your undivided attention. Give them lots of bear hugs, kisses and pats on the back. Give them you!
  4. Eat right: Find a way to read and discuss God, Jesus and the Bible as a family. Make this a part of your everyday conversation rather than a once a week mandatory sit down. Find creative ways to spice things up like discussing a movie that touches on some area of biblical truth, throwing out questions with no easy answers or letting one of your kids lead a devotional.
  5. Set the course: Determine what your core values are as a family. What’s non-negotiable? One day one of our daughters announced she would no longer be going to church with us. Yeah, right! Lynn and I decided early on that church wasn’t a negotiable activity for our kids as long as they were under our roof. She wasn’t a happy camper but her resistance didn’t last long and today she holds that value in her own family.
  6. Romance your mate: Go on regular dates together. Study your spouse and know her well enough to know what communicates love to her. By the way, there’s a high likelihood it’s different from what communicates love to you. Don’t be afraid to show physical affection to your spouse in front of your kids. They may act grossed out, but deep down they’ll love it!
  7. Train your disciples: One of the best things our family ever did when our kids were young was take a mission trip to Mexico. Experiences like this stretch our kids’ faith and give them the thrill of seeing God use them to change lives. Each of my kids has traveled with me on ministry trips outside of the country and it’s been a great way to instill in them a vision for something bigger than themselves
  8. Fight the darkness: You need to be aware of the darkness in our culture and how it threatens your family. What kinds of movies and TV shows will you watch? Who will your kids date? By the way, I’ve found that just because other “Christian” families allow their kids to do something doesn’t mean it’s right for your family.
  9. Rest and refresh: Every family needs to make time during the week to set aside the work and the chores and just be together. God created the Sabbath not as a noose around our neck but to bless us. Try to set aside one day a week that’s different from the others in that it’s not about “doing” but rather “being.”
  10. Keep your covenant: Your marriage is the foundation for your family. It’s a covenant relationship you entered into before God who has made you one flesh. There is no room for the “D” word in your vocabulary.

 

I appreciate the Raineys’ wisdom. We have no guarantees that our kids will follow Jesus as adults, but I believe these are the kinds of things God uses to draw them to himself. My wife and I have had seasons where we’ve done many of these well, and not so well. Perhaps you to go down the list with your spouse and ask how you’re doing in each area. Decide how you’ll shore up those weak areas. Families are always a work in progress and sometimes we just need some markers along the way to help us measure how we’re doing.


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Decision Making in Marriage

Early in our marriage, my wife and I had to make a huge decision about whether or not to accept a ministry position in another church. Since the church was nearly an hour away from where we lived, it would require a move. It would be a step of faith for us to move to a new community and start a job with people we hardly knew. Eventually we decided to go for it, but only after some anxious conversations.

How do couples make decisions? After over 35 years of marriage, I’ve come to believe that several important things ought to be considered in this process. While the decision making process may not look exactly alike for every couple, here are a few things we’ve learned:

  1. Decide on your values and goals first, and let your decisions flow from that. The biggest decision a couple will make is to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). That decision is the biggest of all, and once you’ve made it, many of the smaller things will become clear. Even just some agreed upon long term goals can go a long way in helping make short term decisions.
  2. Share honestly with each other your desires and feelings about the decision. It’s easy to take this for granted, but I’m often surprised when I talk to couples about how one of them doesn’t feel free to share what they really feel. That also means both husband and wife need to really listen to the other’s heart. Just because Lynn says something once doesn’t mean she feels like I’ve heard her. Sometimes I need to hear it again to understand the emotional power behind her words.
  3. Reflect on if there’s anything in Scripture that can inform your decision. Many of the decisions you make are morally neutral and there’s no clear biblical principle to guide you, but sometimes there is something that bears upon your decision. If you’re both in the Word often, you’re in a better position to receive his guidance.
  4. Pray together about the decision. Again, I’m amazed that regardless of how obvious this is, how few couples really do pray about their decisions. Maybe a big decision could be an occasion for what Paul talked about in Corinthians 7:5, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.”
  5. Seek oneness in your decisions, but also recognize each other’s unique strengths. While the big decisions should be made together, couples can delegate decisions to one another in their areas of strength. For example, if my wife is better with investments, it would be wise for me to trust her with those decisions.
  6. If you can’t agree on a decision, wait until a decision has to be made. One of the biggest mistakes couples make is to make a big decision prematurely. While you wait, continue to pray, seek outside counsel from trusted friends and mentors, and continue to gather information.
  7. If a decision must be made and you still can’t agree, let the husband lead. Here is where the rubber meets the road in Paul’s counsel, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:22, 25). This arrangement isn’t tied to value or ability. Jesus was equal with the Father, but he still submitted to him. Ultimately, he trusted his Father knew what was best. Many men use their “headship” as a club to force their wife to submit, but a husband’s call is to love his wife. Love doesn’t demand its own way. When I love my wife, I won’t force my will upon her for selfish purposes. I’ll always consider what’s best for her.


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The Church, the State and Gay Marriage

I’ve been thinking a bit about the decision before the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I recently read an article by Tony Campolo in which he asked, why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage is a sacred institution, why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation where we believe in separation of church and state?

These are good questions. I’ve been officiating weddings for over 30 years. As part of the ceremony I’ve always said, “And now, by the authority given to me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the laws of this state, I do now pronounce you husband and wife.” As far as I know, that’s the only thing I do as a pastor (preaching, praying, leading, counseling, funerals) in which I am required to act as an agent of the state. Campolo asks, “Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted?”

I also fear that someday this could lead to the government dictating to ministers who they can and cannot marry. Recently, I sat with Evangelical believers in the Dominican Republic who have dealt with a similar problem. Historically, in the Dominican Republic, the government stated that only Catholic churches had the authority to officially marry couples. Evangelical Churches could only bless religious marriages after couples had been officially married elsewhere. As a result, many Evangelicals have been forced to live in “common law” marriages without the official sanction of the government. Do we really want the state deciding who can and cannot get married?

Campolo suggests a way out of this apparent conflict and the tough questions being raised about whether our nation should approve of gay marriages. He believes that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and just give legal status to civil unions. This would apply to both gay couples and straight couples, while marriage would be left in the hands of the church. So if a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and register, securing all the rights under the law. But, if the couple wants to be married, they go to a place of worship. Marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control.

Of course, gay couples could go to churches that support gay marriages and get married there, but those like myself who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman would go to places of worship where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld. Marriage would be preserved as a sacred institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this controversial issue would need to be compromised.

Read Tony Campolo’s full article.


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Premarital Counseling

As with most pastors, I’ve performed many weddings. The wedding is usually an unforgettable moment in the life of a couple, but I believe what happens before the wedding matters even more. Before the wedding, I have a chance to speak into a couple’s life in a way, unique to any other time in their life. It’s important to help couples, as much as I can, prepare for marriage. Below are a ten things I have learned along the way about how to do it.

  1. Think through your policies. The leaders of your church should sit down and hammer out some issues: Will we require premarital counseling for couples our pastors marry? How many sessions will we require? Who will conduct these sessions? How long before the wedding should this process start? Will we marry anyone under any circumstances (couples who are living together or who are unequally yoked)? Will there be a charge for these sessions?
  2. Do some initial screening. After you have answered the above questions, put your above policies and procedures down on paper and have it on your web site so prospective couples can read it over before the first meeting. This will help couples know what they are getting into and discuss whether they are willing to make the commitment required.
  3. Have a plan. Don’t just jump into your sessions without thinking through what you want to accomplish and how you will go about it. There is always a possibility that you will change your plan as you go along, but without a plan you will get nowhere. I always tell couples in the first session that I am willing to meet with either of them, one on one at any time upon request.
  4. Determine your materials. There are many great resources out there for premarital counseling. For years I have used an assessment tool created by Prepare/Enrich that is very helpful. I also like A Handbook for Engaged Couples by Alice and Robert Fryling because it allows couples to discuss key issues before each session and then come prepared to discuss what they are learning or struggling with in your time with them.
  5. Cover the bases. There are several topics which must be covered over the course of your time together: expectations, family of origin, communication, conflict resolution, personality issues, extended family relationships, money, sex, children and parenting, spiritual compatibility, roles and leisure activities. There are also some key biblical passages that should be looked at such as Genesis 1-3, Song of Solomon, Mark 10:1-12, 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7.
  6. Make friends. It is not all about content. The relationship you establish with this couple is just as important as the information you communicate. Try to spend some time with the couple outside of your office. My wife and I try to spend an evening over dinner with each couple I marry. We always ask them to come prepared to ask us any questions they want about our marriage.
  7. Utilize the body of Christ. When possible, I include my wife in our premarital sessions. Having a woman’s perspective is invaluable! This also offers the couple an example of transparency and commitment in marriage. Many churches also have premarital programs that include trained lay people, which can be a great way to augment your own time with each couple. I also strongly encourage the couples I marry to attend a Weekend to Remember conference put on by Family Life Today.
  8. Plan the ceremony. I always tell the couple that we are meeting together to prepare for the marriage and not the wedding. Eventually, though, you will need to discuss the ceremony. I like to come prepared with a basic template of a ceremony, walk them through what that looks like, and then encourage them to think through what elements they might want to add or subtract to make it their own.
  9. Meet again. I suggest you plan to meet with the couple at least once in the first six months of their marriage. After a few months of marriage, the things you discussed in theory before the marriage become urgently relevant!
  10. Plug them in. My wife and I got married in college. Unfortunately, our premarital counseling was sorely lacking and we both brought plenty of baggage into the marriage. But we got plugged into a small group of other newly married couples, led by a more experienced couple who had been married for what seemed to us to be an eternity (5 years). That group was a lifesaver to us! When you are finished counseling a couple before marriage, give them some next steps for getting plugged into community during the first year of marriage.

I believe in premarital counseling. Not only do I enjoy it, but I believe it is one the most significant things I have done in over 30 years of pastoral ministry. Although it is not foolproof, it can provide a solid foundation for couples to build upon in the years to come.


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How to Preach on Marriage, Divorce and Singleness

Marriage, divorce and singleness can be some of the most difficult but rewarding subjects we cover in our preaching and teaching. I generally preach through books of the Bible, and these subjects come up quite often as I do so. At other times, I have chosen to specifically address these subjects as part of a topical series. Either way, these messages always seem to draw more attention and scrutiny than others. The following are ten things I have learned about preaching on these subjects.

  1. Don’t avoid the subject. Preaching on marriage, divorce and singleness can feel like entering a minefield. Besides creating controversy, few of us really enjoy offending people. But these are issues that are immensely significant in people’s lives and the Word of God has lots to say about them. We are called to preach the whole counsel of God. If we avoid the subject we fail to fulfill our calling.
  2. Don’t compromise or apologize. God’s Word has some very clear—cut things to say about marriage, divorce and singleness. We dare not compromise his Word and we need not apologize for it. For example, when it comes to marriage, it is good to remind people that God invented it. It was his idea! Therefore, it stands to reason that we should listen to what he has to say in this area.
  3. Understand the culture. As preachers, we should not have our heads in the sand. We should study our culture and communicate to our people as one who knows how people think in this area and why it makes sense to them. For example, many single adults live together before marriage because of the financial pressures of maintaining two homes. We may not agree with that decision, but at least we can acknowledge the reality of their dilemma.
  4. Show compassion and empathy. There is a great deal of pain, hurt and brokenness in this area, either in people’s family of origin or their current family. Some of that pain has resulted from their own sin and some from the sin of others. If you want people to listen to some of the more challenging things God has to say in this area, it is crucial that you come across as a person who identifies with their brokenness and cares.
  5. Be real. One of the ways you can show that you understand their pain and brokenness is by sharing your own personal struggles and failures in this area. Obviously, you need to exercise discernment as you do that. The pulpit is not your own confessional, but there is a place for appropriate transparency and vulnerability.
  6. Don’t betray confidences. If you are going to share anything about your own family, be sure that they know what you plan to say and give you their permission to share it. Whether it is family or friends, never betray a person’s confidence when using examples or illustrations.
  7. Acknowledge unique scenarios. One of the biggest challenges of preaching on these subjects is there are so many unique scenarios that don’t have easy answers. For example, the Bible seems clear that the only two legitimate reasons for divorce are infidelity or abandonment. But what about physical abuse? Does this constitute a form of abandonment? While you cannot possibly address all of the issues, you should at least acknowledge that they exist and try to give people a wise framework for making hard decisions.
  8. Point them to additional resources. Since you cannot address every situation, you should point people to other resources that can help them, such as counselors, mentors, books and conferences.
  9. Don’t glorify being married or being single. Some believers want to glorify marriage while others want to glorify being single. The fact is, both are legitimate callings and both have their own challenges. While marriage does seem to be the norm for people, we should never forget that both Jesus and Paul were single adults!
  10. Preach that no one is beyond God’s grace. You will preach to people who have experienced failed marriages. You will preach to single adults who are involved in inappropriate relationships. But they are listening to you because in some way God is at work in their life. You must proclaim God’s grace to them through the work of Jesus on the cross. You must give them hope for both forgiveness and change. Think of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV).


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The Way of a Man with a Young Woman

“I’m in love!”

She didn’t have to tell me. It was clear from the look on her face—excitement, wonder, joy, and just a tinge of anxiety. All the signs were there.

As followers of Christ, we are sometimes a bit skeptical about this business of falling in love. We say that true love is not something we can “fall” into. We talk about how Hollywood has distorted our view of love to make it more about romantic feelings than true commitment. There are some good reasons to be skeptical.

But, if we are not careful, we who follow Christ will miss out on something the Bible embraces as wonderful and mysterious:

There are three things which are too amazing for me,
four which I don’t understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a snake on a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.
—Proverbs 30:18-19

In this ancient proverb, the climax is found in the final line: the venturesome and mysterious ways of the soaring eagle, the slithering snake (not poisonous in Palestine), the sailing ship (a source of wonder to the Israelites who, unlike the Phoenicians, were not at home on the sea and on ships)—these build to a climax in the mystery and adventure and attraction between a young man and an eligible young woman.

I don’t understand it! How does an eagle soar through the air? How does a snake slither on a rock? How does a ship glide through the sea? Think of each of these images. Each portrays a seeming ease of movement with no trace being left behind. It seems so natural, but when one tries to explain it, words cannot be found. This is the mystery of a man and woman in love. The first glance of the eye. The rush of the heart. The conversations that flow long into the night. The scary revelation of mutual admiration. The moving towards greater commitment. How does it happen? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does.

It’s too wonderful for me! How does an eagle handle invisible air? How does a snake handle unforgiving rock? How does a ship handle unpredictable seas? It is not easy to negotiate air, rock and sea, much less a young woman! How does it happen? How does he capture her invisible, unforgiving, unpredictable heart? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does happen. I’m glad God created a world where there is something as unpredictable and surprising as this. Aren’t you?

There is one more thing that is even more wonderful than the way of a man with a virgin. It is the way of a man with his wife of 10, 20, or 30-plus years. It is the way of love which grows deeper and stronger and even more wild as the years go by. How come we don’t get tired of each other? How come we still get anxious to meet after a week’s separation? How come our love is kindled again and again through long talks and walks?

It is too wonderful for me. I don’t understand it.


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Converge

One of the things my wife Lynn and I have a passion for is helping young couples establish a healthy marriage. Three months ago, we started a new ministry at CPC called Converge. Converge is an informal, once-a-month meeting, open to any young couple in their 20’s and 30’s. We meet in a home, hang out, have a potluck style dinner, and take some time as a group to discuss different aspects of marriage and family. Our desire is to provide a setting where young couples can connect and build community with one another, as well as learn from a “mature” (that’s a nice word for “older”) couple who shares a bit about their own marriage.

Last Saturday night we squeezed 52 people into our house in San Carlos. We had a great discussion about how to handle the holidays as a young couple. This is an area that can often be a source of struggle for young marrieds and it was great to learn from one another some of the ways we have handled this, especially as it relates to in-laws. I found a decent article on the Focus on the Family website that deals with this very issue. Here is the link: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/communication_and_conflict/inlaw_relationships/holidays_and_the_inlaws.aspx

If you would like to attend Converge, or you know a young couple who might benefit from this ministry, contact my assistant, Mike Northcote at mnorthcote@cpcfc.org. Mike is the ”go to” guy for this ministry and he and his wife, Megan, have done an amazing job at organizing it. We are taking the month of December off but will reconvene on January 25, 2013.