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What happens when we truly put God first in all aspects of our lives?
In a culture guided chiefly by shiny, life-promising distractions, “enough” seems elusive and keeps us indebted to that next source of satisfaction. What if the Giver of Life offered freedom from this downward spiral--would you take it? In First: Putting God First in Living and Giving, pastor and author Mike Slaughter conducts a four-week all-church stewardship program to help participants reassess priorities and create a culture and a lifestyle of faithful living and giving and make a meaningful contribution to the world.
Sessions include: Naming Our Idols; Money, Work, and Debt; Earn-Save-Give; and Heart Giving. The Youth Study Edition helps teens understand and experience generosity and includes group session materials for leaders.
About the Author
Kevin Alton is a youth worker, writer, musician, husband, father, and friend. He lives and works near Chattanooga TN and is a regular contributor to youth resources, including YouthWorker Movement and his own Wesleyan resource for curriculum and community, Youthworker Circuit (www.youthworkercircuit.com).
Mike Slaughter is the Pastor Emeritus at Ginghamsburg Church. Under his leadership, Ginghamsburg Church has become known as an early innovator of small group ministry, the Church "media reformation," and cyber-ministry. Mike is the author of multiple books for church leaders, including Down to Earth, The Passionate Church, Change the World, Dare to Dream, Renegade Gospel, A Different Kind of Christmas, Spiritual Entrepreneurs, Real Followers, Momentum for Life, UnLearning Church, and Upside Living in a Downside Economy.
Read an Excerpt
first putting GOD first in living and giving
Youth Study Edition by Kevin Alton
By Mike Slaughter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
NAMING OUR IDOLS
Don't forget the covenant that I made with you. Don't worship other gods. Instead, worship only the Lord your God. He will rescue you from your enemies' power. But they wouldn't listen. Instead, they continued doing their former religious practices. So these nations worship the Lord, but they also serve their idols. The children and the grandchildren are doing the very same thing their parents did. And that's how things still are today. (2 Kings 17:38-41)
Reading and Reflecting
Idols Are So Cool ...
I was fascinated by idols when I was a kid. I was an avid reader of Scripture at an early age. (Yes, I was that kid.) But I wasn't trying to advance my theological learning; since I was in middle school, I was just hunting for sex and violence. Which lands you pretty quickly in the Old Testament. Which is also packed with idols. I can still remember how odd I thought some of the things were that people in Scripture did or worshiped or believed. As an adult, I can look back and realize that with just a little perspective, nearly anything can seem normal if it's how you were raised.
But the way my God interacted with those other gods and idols fascinated me. I loved the story about Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal because Baal didn't respond. Was Baal taking a break? Was he on vacation? And when the Philistines captured the ark of God and set it in the temple of their god Dagon, they returned on consecutive mornings to find Dagon knocked down. The second day Dagon's hands and head broke off too, which was a nice touch. Things got so bad in Philistine territory that eventually the Philistines returned the ark voluntarily. Our God had so much swagger in the Old Testament! It made other gods and idols seem so obviously silly.
Fast-forward to today. It's much harder to point the finger at our own existence on any subject. Something about the fact that we're in it makes everything seem perfectly normal. We don't have fish-shaped gods that distract us from our God, do we? And there's no ark of the covenant milling about knocking down things that compete with God for our attention. Things are so much more complex and sophisticated than they used to be.
Or are they?
Even as a little kid, I was pretty good at arranging my life in the way that I wanted and then trying to tag God onto the outside of my plan. In the summer of my fifth-grade year I decided I was going to be a Christian rock star. I wrote songs. I designed outfits for the band. I made my brothers "practice" with me, though none of us played instruments. I even drew blueprints for a "band house" where we could all live together with our families and space for practice and recording. Somewhere in there was the idea of keeping family forefront in an industry that often puts God and family last.
That dream faded as I got older, but the practice of making my plan first continued into adulthood. In the times when I would actually seek God first, it didn't take a lot to derail me. I would begin to follow, then the slightest distraction or bump in the road would move me off course. Or I would follow God's lead for a moment and immediately begin tacking on my own ideas and suggestions.
What does all that have to do with idols? Nothing and everything. We wouldn't label most of what distracts us from God as an idol, but in fact it is even though it's not shaped like a fish, or lying knocked over next to the ark of God. In the end, it's easier to go on living however we want than to label our idols for what they are and clean house.
But we must. Get out the Sharpie and yard sale labels, then take a walk through your life, looking for idols. Maybe it's your phone. Maybe it's your appearance: Each morning in the mirror, you may be staring your idol in the face. Some of your idols are probably things that in most other ways are positive but become idols when they distract us from God, such as your room, your friends, your family. Identifying the first few idols will be tough, but once you get rolling I think you'll find real peace in being honest.
If we've decided to be followers of Jesus, there's a massive change of priority in our lives that comes with that decision. It's not as simple as a checked box on a letter of intent. Life change must occur. I get that it's easy to hang on to your stuff, or even to add new distractions as you get older. Believe me, they just get shinier and more expensive as you go. It's okay to mess up. But it's important to own up to it when you mess up.
Let's Make a Deal
We live in an increasingly legalistic society. Everything has a contract. You can barely open iTunes on a computer anymore without finding an update on the terms of service and a new "I Agree" box to check ... which everyone checks without reading. Seriously. One day, guys in iTunes jackets are going to show up at your house and take away your couch. When you object, they'll calmly point to paragraph four, line six, where it clearly states that iTunes version 11.4 entitles them to your sofa. And you agreed to it, without looking.
I think we do a lot of agreeing without looking spiritually as well. We feel that we have the big blocks in place—believe in Jesus, go to heaven, try to be nice. But there's an awful lot of fine print in Scripture. Should that be any less binding then the iTunes contract?
In 2 Kings 17:38-41 God shows up for the couch, so to speak. There are other places in Scripture where it's stated more sharply, but here Israel is being called out for straying. God says, "Hey, remember our deal?" God even reminds them who has their back when they face their enemies. It's a simple request. Please stop worshiping other gods. But they don't. Worse, they don't even have the courtesy to turn away completely: "So these nations worship the Lord, but they also serve their idols. The children and grandchildren are doing the very same thing their parents did. And that's how things still are today" (2 Kings 17:41 CEB).
We're capable of taking the simplest directions and complicating them so that we can manipulate things to our own advantage. And we're great at pretending we were genuinely confused about the circumstances. "I thought you meant don't eat all the Oreos yesterday, Mom. I didn't realize you meant for that rule to carry over."
If your parents seem frustrated when you break an obvious rule, they're not alone. In fact, on this one they've got God on their side.
Read Deuteronomy 5:6-8. What is the very, very basic instruction from God in these verses? Does the phrase "no form whatsoever" in the middle of verse 8 sound like a parental over-explanation of the rule?
Why do you think God prefaces the rule by reminding Israel of their past relationship with God?
Why do you think we're so inclined to find our way around plainly stated rules?
What rules from your parents have you worked around in the past?
Are there spiritual things that you've learned to dodge? Why do you do that?
Have you ever gone through your attic or garage and found things that have been ruined by time? Drafty sheds let dust and bugs in; basements flood and have mice; even storage units can be compromised by the elements. What is the normal reaction to this? "Oh no, it's ruined." Of course, "it" hasn't been out of the box in years. In fact, you had probably forgotten that you owned it.
Poorly executed storage provides a great visual aid for how idols creep into our lives. It starts with one little distraction from God, and before you know it you've got a basement full of things you're trying, unsuccessfully, to save.
Read Matthew 6:19-21. Apart from physical items, what kind of things are people trying to store up here on earth? What kind of things should they be storing up?
Reflect a moment on verse 21. What do you think Jesus means when he says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"?
My Aim Is True
As you discard your idols, don't get so distracted that you forget what right living looks like—it's possible to get so busy clearing away the bad that we neglect living into the good. The Israelites had a thing called the Shema that they attached to their clothing and doorposts as a reminder of who God is and how they were expected to live. When a rich young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus quoted the Shema to him, with a small addition at the end.
Read Luke 10:27. Do you see what Jesus added?
Jesus knew that the rich young man was well versed in Scripture; the young man certainly would have known the Shema. So Jesus' words probably felt like a bit of a slap in the face. Jesus was telling him to live the way he already knew he should live, and in addition, he should love others the way he loved his own rich self. Hard words.
If you were the rich young man, what obvious truth from your own life do you think Jesus might throw back at you?
Making It Personal
Your friends see you as you want them to; your parents see you as you want them to. But you're on the inside. You know your own motivations and don't have any secrets from yourself. And guess what? God is in there too.
So, no more pretending: What are your idols? What are the things in your life that you keep from God or use in place of God? Friends? Possessions? Plans for the future? Use the spaces on this page and the next to write your thoughts and reactions.
Are you willing to let go of your idols? It's all well and good to sit in church and talk about how you'll get your life going in the right direction and make changes and be a new person. But are you actually willing to do it? What's your first step?
Sharing in Conversation
Write your thoughts about the questions below. Then spend some time with a group discussing these questions:
1. Are you comfortable labeling the things that distract us from God as "idols"? Why or why not?
2. Until we began this study, what came to mind when you heard the word idol? Has that changed at all? If so, how?
3. What happens when we surround ourselves with idols? Where is our focus if it isn't on God any more?
4. Apart from making us selfish, what other spiritual complications can you think of when our lives are focused only on ourselves?
Bringing It to Life
Supplies: Some paper and markers or other writing devices
Your group is going to make two lists. The first list will be of things you can remember really, really wanting that you eventually received. This could be a gift for your birthday or Christmas or any other non-occasion when you wanted something and got it. The second list should be of things you wanted and never got. For purposes of this list, it doesn't matter if you still want it or not, just that you wanted it at one time and never received it. Let everyone work alone for a while and then come back together. Share your lists.
Talk about the first list. At what ages did you want the things on that list? Do you still have any of those things? How important are they now?
Now take a look at the second list. How old were you when you wanted the things on that list? Even though you never got them, have some of those things faded in importance to you? Why? Does anything on the list remain important to you? Why?
On another piece of paper, make a list of the things you think God may want from you. Share your list with others. How many of those things have you given to God?
Supplies: You'll each need your first two lists from the previous exercise
In the Old Testament, a scene we witness more than once involves a good king following a bad king (or several bad kings). As the good king begins to lead Israel, his first objective is to remove everything that is distracting God's people from true worship. Altars come down, temples are destroyed, stuff gets burned. The idols are destroyed. It might even be fun. We're going to do a version of that with your lists.
This isn't to judge your lists; not everything shown on them qualifies as an idol. But some of the things probably do. Sit in a circle with your group. Look over both of your lists and choose one thing that you're willing to give back to God symbolically as a first step in removing the idols from your life. Tear it from the piece of paper (carefully).
Your leader will pass a box around the circle, asking you to name the thing you've torn off. As you place your strip of paper in the box, say, "God, I give ____________ back to you."
How did that feel?
Listening for God
God, I recognize that I have not loved you with my whole heart. Help me to find my idols and root them out so that they never come back. Give me the strength and discernment to complete this difficult task. Amen.CHAPTER 2
MONEY, WORK, AND DEBT
The LORD will open up for you his own well-stocked storehouse, the heavens, providing your land with rain at just the right time and blessing all your work. You will lend to many nations, but you won't have any need to borrow. The LORD will make you the head of things, not the tail; you will be at the top of things, not the bottom, as long as you obey the LORD your God's commandments that I'm commanding you right now, by carefully doing them. Don't deviate even a bit from any of these words that I'm commanding you right now by following other gods and serving them. (Deuteronomy 28:12-14)
Reading and Reflecting
Working for a Living
I wasn't a stranger to the idea of work when I was young. My brothers and I grew up in a world where mandatory household chores were a regular part of our existence, a tradition I look forward to passing on to my own kids very, very soon. My older brother Brian got vacuuming, a task I desperately wanted for myself. (I think my OCD—obsessive-compulsive disorder—made me enjoy the patterns I could make in the carpet.) My chore was dusting, which I detested. But I liked it better than the job given to my younger brother Minkey, which was cleaning the bathrooms. I'm not sure how Minkey got stuck with that. It seems that a job that awful would have to work its way down from one brother to the next, but Brian and I never had to do it. When Minkey was old enough to pitch in, he was handed a toilet brush. Luck of the draw, I guess.
In the summers, Brian and I made a fair living for unemployed middle- and high-school kids by cutting grass. Before Brian could drive, we would push our mowers to the house where we'd work. When we finally got a new (to us) riding mower, I can remember feeling like we'd hit the big time when we got to ride to a new customer who used to be out of our range. Eventually Brian could drive us in Mom's car to jobs outside the neighborhood, and the world became our oyster. Our last season working together, we received a windfall when we took over all the customers of a kid we knew from church. He had flipped out of a Jeep in the high-school parking lot and broken both wrists. Score! Turns out you can't cut grass if your wrists don't work.
Later in high school, I got tired of having money only in the summertime. I didn't have a driver's license yet, so there was a family conversation about transportation. Eventually, though, I applied for and got a job at Little Caesars Pizza. I'd grown up with the practice of tithing, but I can still recall the pinch of tithing on that first real check. The bigger the hundred percent, the bigger the ten percent, and there's no pretending that you don't feel it. I got the same feeling every time I received a raise or moved to a better paying job.
I should probably be clear about something. I don't believe tithing does a magic trick in your bank account—what some people describe as: "You give a little, God gives a lot." I do believe the practice of tithing fosters better financial habits in your life that, in turn, enable you to make better use of your resources. And I believe the intention behind tithing—giving back to God—builds character that guides your decision making in a way that is honored by God. But hear me: it's not a magic trick. It's a discipline, learned and rewarded over time. If your family is struggling financially, don't go home and yell at your parents about tithing. It's not going to fix things by next week. But over time, the practice can redirect your life in a way that is transforming.
Most of you, no matter what age, can probably relate to stories about work and money. For just a moment, though, I'd like to address the oldest of you, who are on the brink of another area offering not only opportunities to honor God, but chances to sink your own ship. I'm talking about financial debt.
I was blindsided by debt as I entered college. I guess I just didn't think about it or talk about it before leaving home, but I stepped on campus to register and within a few hours, in a little room in the basement of the music building, I signed my life away, in the form of a student loan. A year and a half later I left college, terrified by the amount of debt that I was building. I didn't even have a car, and I was racking up over 10K a year in debt. It was too much. My college experience was sidelined, and my call to youth ministry was nearly suffocated in the process.
Excerpted from first putting GOD first in living and giving by Mike Slaughter. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Using This Book 11
1 Naming Our Idols 13
2 Money, Work, and Debt 25
3 Be Faithful, Save, and Give 37
4 Heart Giving 49
Bonus Session: What's Next? 61
Suggestions for an All-Church Event 73