Category Archives: Ministry

Age-based Ministries Are Destroying the Church?

You are destroying the church. At least, you are if your church has age-based programs like Sunday school classes youth ministries. This is according to a new video put out by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. The video is well-done, provocative, and worth watching. But, even though I’m sympathetic to some of its arguments, the video itself is quite flawed.

As soon as I saw the video, I passed it along to Ron Marrs, who directs the youth ministry program at Western Seminary. And, I asked him to offer his thoughts.You can watch the video below for free until September. So, check it out and then see Ron’s comments below.

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What I Agree with in the Movie

  1. Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
  2. Many parents have abandoned their discipleship responsibilities.
  3. Churches need to help parents disciple their children.
  4. The Bible is the absolute authority for our Christian practice.

Having said that, here are a variety of things that concern  me about the movie.

Problem #1: It Uses Some Flawed Arguments

1. I give you statistics to convince you how we are failing to raise our youth to follow Christ.

The most prevalent statistic is a bogus statistic that appeared in a report by the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life in June 2002: “88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return.”  I tracked down the source of this statement and found it to be the result of a meeting of youth pastors sitting around speculating on a percentage of students who are in church after being involved in church youth ministries.

This “88 percent” quote has been used for nine years to fuel much of this discussion!  I have been pushing back for about 5 years, writing to speakers and authors on this and other statistics being used in the debate.

Check out my article “Stop Abusing Stats” for more on this use of statistics and my response to the issues.

2. I blame a program or philosophy of ministry in the church for the crisis.

In this case, the “straw man” youth ministry is attacked as the culprit.  This youth ministry is all about fun and games.  This youth ministry takes students to worldly sounding Christian rock concerts.  Youth pastors don’t teach the young earth perspective on creation, therefore the Bible is undermined as the absolute source of truth.

In fact, there are numerous youth ministries and church families of which I am aware that produce strong Christ-followers.

3. I tell you that my philosophy, seminar, conference, book will “save the day.”

Research is seldom cited that attempt to explain the causes of the rejection of the faith although research is being done in this area.  There is no connection between quality research and solving the “crisis.”

The solution to the crisis is following my philosophy of ministry.  Mine is biblical and yours is not

Problem #2: The Movie’s Arguments Don’t Support Its Conclusion

Here are (not nearly all) of the movie’s main arguments:

    1. Youth ministry is not found in the Bible.
    2. Youth ministry flows out of ungodly, evolutionary educational philosophy adopted by the church.
    3. To continue youth ministry it is to corrupt the church.
    4. There is no age segregation in the church gatherings of the New Testament.
    5. Fathers are to disciple their children. This is the only pattern justified by a reading of Scripture.

Therefore, age-segregated groupings in church goes against Scripture. Youth groups must cease.

There are so many logical fallacies and anecdotal evidence used to make these arguments that it is difficult to know where to start.  So, I’ll offer just some quick thoughts. If you need more convincing, let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll write some further posts.

  1. Isn’t it true that when a person comes to Christ that they are to be equipped by the entire Body of Christ as articulated in Ephesians 4:1-16?  Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  The church is responsible to disciple the parents in such a way that they are able and motivated to obey this command.
  2. Who will reach the millions of teenagers who are not in Christian homes?  Much of the discussion surrounding youth ministry in the church centers on taking care of our church family kids.  This is critical.  But who will move into the lives of the unsaved youth?  They tried to address this issue but the recommendation was not compelling to me.
  3. Church leadership and parents will be wise to truly collaborate in the nurturing of children in the church and reaching students outside the church family to see youth respond to the Gospel in faith and grow in their faith.  I am concerned that products like this do not enhance problem-solving and strategic planning in the church.

What do you think? Does the video have a point? Are age-based ministries harming the church? Or, do you think that there’s a role for them in a healthy church?

(You may also be interested in Tim Challies interesting review of the movie.)

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

It’s Your Fault: How you might be creating your own “people problems”

“Sometimes you are the problem.” That’s how are a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education begins its look at interpersonal conflict: It’s Your Fault. We’d like to blame someone else, and we usually do. But, the simple truth is that sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

As the author points out, we live in a context where “blame shifting” is an art form.

Of course it’s hard to resist blaming someone else. Admitting that a personal or personnel dispute is your fault is difficult—and near impossible for some people.

We live in a world where it is standard political discourse to lay 100 percent of the blame for any crisis or problem on the opposing party. Or, as a recent popular psychology book put it: “Mistakes were made, but not by me.”

But, the author goes on to point out that there is real virtue in recognizing that you are often part of the problem. When the problem is entirely on their side, you’re stuck. You can’t do much to change others. But, if you’re contributing to the problem, you have an opportunity. You just have to get out of your own way.

So, the author goes on to identify five things you might be doing to create your own “people problems.” Given the source of the article, it should come as no surprise that it focuses on academic conflict: the tensions and complications that arise between faculty, students, and (shockingly) administration. But, the ideas really apply anywhere conflict can arise between people (i.e. everywhere).

You’ll have to read the whole article for good comments on each of these. But, here are the five things you might be doing to contribute to the problem.

  1. You have not paid your dues but act like you have.

  2. You are overly suspicious.

  3. You are acting selfish.

  4. You complain too much.

  5. You are a jerk.

Personally, I love the last one. Sometimes recognizing that you are a jerk is an important first step toward getting along better with others.

And, the author concludes with:

Admitting to ourselves that we are—at least in part—to blame for a difficulty we face is hard, but it is necessary for getting on with life and careers. It is also a sign that you have developed two key components of the tenure-worthy: maturity and responsibility.

Amen.

It’s a good article and is well worth a few minutes of your time.

How to train preachers

Here’s an interesting video on how to train future pastors and leaders. Bryan Chapell, Mike Bulmore, and David Helm all share their thoughts on how to train future pastors in the church. It doesn’t sound like any of them reject the idea that schools/seminaries have a role to play as well, but there focus is on what this looks like in the context of the local congregation. They end up getting into an interesting discussion of modeling vs. instructing in the training process.

One thing I found interesting was that although they mentioned the importance of experience/practice in the training process, they didn’t discuss how difficult it can be for beginning preachers to find preaching opportunities. With the demise of Sunday evening services and mid-week services at most churches, seminary students often find it very difficult to get real preaching practice – especially since many churches don’t want to hand the pulpit to beginning preachers on Sunday morning (or whenever the main service is). So, they either need to preach in a classroom, which is a really artificial environment in which to learn how to preach, or they have to manufacture a preaching outlet: : small groups, friends, family, whatever. This just isn’t a great way to train future preachers.

I’d love to see more churches developing a training mentality for future preachers. Seminaries can help students develop some of the skills necessary for good preaching, but they can’t complete the process. Some things you just can’t learn in the classroom.

Gerry Breshears discusses avoiding burn-out while engaging in social justice issues.

Since many readers of this blog are students of Western Seminary I thought I’d link over to the first “vlog” done with one of our professors. We asked Gerry Breshears how one can avoid burn out while engaging in social justice issues. See his answer here. If you have a comment don’t be shy. Gerry is anticipating some interaction.

How to Disagree

The Gospel Coalition blog has posted a new video on how Christians should disagree, featuring Michael Horton, Matt Chandler, and Tim Keller. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. So, if you do, let us know what you think.

How do you pass the baton in ministry?

One of the sad realities in church life is that pastoral transitions rarely go well. And, it seems like the longer a pastor has served a church, the more likely it is that the transition to the next pastor will be a complete disaster. Passing the baton is hard.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because my church’s senior pastor has been in that position for over 20 years. He has definitely put his “stamp” on the church. And, although he’s not that old yet, you know that a transition has to happen sooner or later. The only question is whether the church will transition well. And, the odds are not in our favor.

So, I was keenly interested in this video of three seasoned Christian leaders discussing the challenging of pastoral succession. Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper all offer some thoughts on how they’re preparing for the future. And, probably the most interesting insight, is that none of them are entirely sure how to go about doing this. Piper and Keller in particular are upfront about the fact that they’re aware this is an issue, but they’re just not sure what the right answer is – or even if there is one. As Piper said, quoting from his own sermon,

When God-centered leaders don’t know what to do because it’s not in the bible, they know what to do about not knowing what to do because that is in the Bible. Namely, pray

Here’s the video. If you have some time to watch it. I’d be curious to hear what you think. And, if you’ve ever been part of a church that went through a pastoral transition, how did it go? Did you learn anything from the experience?

Is there a statue of limitations on the “exception clause” for divorce?

Is it ever okay to divorce someone? If so, when? If not, why not? Those are interesting questions. I remember discussing them in various ethics and ministry classes. We’d sit around and talk about the relative merits of the various views, exegete the “exception” clause(s) in the Bible, and wrestle with difficult situations like spousal abuse and long-term neglect. Those were some fun discussions.

Discussing the same questions in your living room with someone whose marriage is falling apart, that’s something else entirely.

I’ve recently run across some questions about divorce that were new to me, though I’m sure they’re not unique, and I’m having a difficult time deciding on the appropriate response. So, I thought I’d throw the situation out there and see what you all think about it. Take a look at the following scenario and let me know how you would respond. (Obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to put the details of another person’s struggle on a public blog. So, I’ve changed the names and conflated some of the details with other scenarios I’ve encountered over the years.)

The Scenario

  1. Jack and Jill have been married for quite a while and they have three children under the age of thirteen. Early on, Jack developed a problem with pornography and has struggled with sexual addiction for many years. He’d gotten caught a few times over the years. And, each time he’d sincerely promise that he’d stop, but quickly lapse into the same destructive patterns.
  2. Three years ago, his problems with pornography culminated in a brief affair. He hit bottom at this point, finally recognized his need for God’s grace to deliver him from this addiction, and began the healing process. The last three years have been transformative and he is now a completely different person. God’s grace is good.
  3. Realizing that healing requires honesty, Jack told Jill about the affair shortly after it happened and in the following months revealed to her the full depths of his sexual addiction. That was, of course, quite painful for both of them. But, although Jill was hurt and angry, she decided to stay. For the last three years, he has been in counseling regularly, and she’s seen a counselor occasionally. But they did not pursue counseling together, thinking that they needed to work on their individual issues first.
  4. A short time ago, Jill asked for a divorce. Jack has not had any relapses. Nonetheless, Jill has come to the conclusion that she’ll never really be able to get past all that has happened and truly love Jack as a husband again. Jack wants the marriage to work and has tried to get Jill to agree to talking with a pastor or counselor to work more actively on their marriage. But, since the affair, Jill has not shown any desire to seek help in restoring the marriage, and she is now firm in her decision to leave.

The Questions

How would you handle this situation? Suppose that Jill is your friend and she’s come to you for advice. How would you have counseled her three years ago? If she’d asked for a divorce then, would you have supported that decision? If not, why not? And, How would you counsel her now? Is it any different from what you’d have said three years ago? Does it make any difference that he’s such a changed person now? If you think that the Bible allows divorce when infidelity is involved (i.e. the famous “exception clause” in Mt. 19:9), how long does the exception last? Is there a statue of limitations on the exception clause? Or, could a divorce five or even ten years later be justified on the basis of this exception?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Jonathan Edwards on Love as the “Sum of All Virtue”

[This is a guest post by Paul Barger. Paul is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and its Fruits is a collection of manuscript adapted for publication by Edwards on the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Jonathan Edwards first delivered these lectures as a series of sermons to his church in Northhampton in 1738, and were first published in 1852. Shortly, after it was published, The New Englander, a journal founded at Yale College, described Edwards’ work as a volume that reflected “the childlike simplicity of his tastes, his strength of intellect, his acute and searching discrimination, and the warmth and earnestness of his piety.”1 Charity takes a simple tone and clear logic that reflects the nature of a work design to be delivered to those in his flock in Northhampton. Each lecture functions as its own independent unit, and therefore lacks a structured progression, even though Edwards works through each verse in succession. I would group each lecture under several headings.

The first heading could be titled, the primacy & nature of love. The title of this volume uses the term, charity. Even though, Edwards uses charity throughout this work, it is somewhat misleading. At first glance, any modern reader would assume that when Edward uses the word “charity”, he means to discuss the voluntary giving of help, usually expressed in the giving of money. However, Edward simply adopts this word due to its use in his translation of the Bible. He points out that in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the word “which is here translated ‘charity,’ might better have been rendered ‘love’.” Edwards defines love as “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another;” and is expressed as it is “exercised towards God or our fellow-creatures.” Despite the object of its expression, Edwards argues that Christian love is always the same because it comes from God by God motivated by God’s loving nature. When Christian love is active in an individual, we find that we possess the greatest ingredient of the Christian faith. For Christian love reflects “the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing.”  And without it, there can be no real exercise of true religion. Edwards also argues that Christian love is to be prized above all virtues, as well as all supernatural gifts of the Spirit. In Edwards estimation, supernatural gifts of the Spirit are granted temporarily by God for a purpose, however love is inherent in a Christian’s nature & continues through to eternity. Edward describes those extraordinary gifts as “a beautiful garment, which does not alter the nature of the man that wears it.” However, love is that “fruit of the Spirit that never fails or ceases in the church of Christ.”

The second heading could be titled, the visible effects of love. Edwards argues, “All true grace in the heart tends to holy practice in the life.” Therefore, it must be visible and there must be fruit. If we desire to know that Christian love is real, it is most clearly evidenced in a individuals seeking and doing it—“for whatever we truly desire, we do thus seek.” This is most clearly seen in our redemption. “He has reconciled them to God by his death, to save them from wicked works, that they might be holy and unblamable in their lives.” Edwards continues by showing the effects, or fruits, of love. This is reflected in a Christian’s ability to endure all sufferings of all degrees. Edwards argues that Christian love enables Christians to willingly undergo “the fiercest and most cruel sufferings in degree, they are willing to undergo for Christ”; for they “are like pure gold, that will bear the trial of the hottest furnace.” Christian love is also visible in Christian humility. Edwards argues that if we have God’s condescending love, and we understand & love God who is infinitely greater than we are, and we love our humble Lord who was crucified for our sake; then the fruits of love will be a humble spirit.

The final heading I would use to organize Edwards thoughts in this volume is the opposing spirits of love. Edwards first address the spirit of envy, which is opposed to Christian love. He states, “The nature of charity or Christian love to men is directly contrary to envy; for love does not grudge, but rejoices at the good of those who are loved.” Edwards also points out that selfishness is at opposite of Christian love for “those that are possessed of the spirit of Christian charity are of a more enlarged spirit still; for they are concerned not only for the thrift of the community, but for the welfare of the Church of God.” Finally, Edwards argues that the spirits of anger and censoriousness are at complete odds with love.

Charity and its Fruits possess tremendous strengths, which should be noted. Compared to many of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the language is extremely clear and easy to read. His arguments have a powerful straightforwardness about them that is well supported by Biblical evidence. This volume is possesses a practicality unlike any of his other works. Most lectures in this volume end with valuable considerations of the application of arguments made by Edwards. My biggest concerns in this work were largely peripheral concerns. With this volume, they begin with the lack of exposition, due to my fondness of preaching, and end on Edwards’ heavy emphasis on personal examination. Though Edwards does recognize that when discussing love and “a life of Christian practice…the meaning is not, that the life is a perfect and sinless life.” There is significant emphasis on demands of love and our failings to meet them. This would not be as problematic had there been countered with significant devotion to the Gospel, and Christ’s perfect and sinless life. In the end, Edwards’ exploration into the nature and fruits of love helps uncover true Christian love, how it is identified, and practiced.

1 Northrop, F. W. “President Edwards on Charity and its Fruits.” New Englander. 10.2 (1852): 222-36.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Martin Luther on How to Pick a Fight

I’ve never really met anyone that enjoys criticism, especially when it is of the unspiritual and unkind type.  I realized early on in ministry that to preach the gospel faithfully you have to have thick skin, unwavering convictions to biblical truth, and a kind and humble heart.  I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from an angry parent.  I felt defensive, attacked, and discouraged.  Luckily it all worked out and I learned a great deal about working with people.  Now, imagine you’re Martin Luther.  It’s not an angry parent that is calling but the head of the Church, and he’s essentially calling you and your teaching heretical.  This does not just mean the possible end of your ministry, but perhaps your life as well.  In Luther’s day you did not cross the church.  Fortunately for the Church, Luther had the conviction to honor God above men and posted his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg.  Thus on June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued his papal bull demanding that Luther retract a major portion of his teaching, writing, and section of his 95 Theses.  (If you’ve never read it, it’s a fascinating read.)  He cited 41 errors in Luther’s teaching, which included such things as that purgatory was not in the Bible, that indulgences were not necessary to obtain grace, and that the baptism of infants did not cleanse them from sin.  Pope Leo went on to write

 “Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.

Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”

So what did Martin Luther do?  He had a book burning party in which he burned the Papal Bull in front of his students at Wittenberg.  He is reported as saying “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!”  So on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther issuing another bull, the Decet Romanum Pontificem.  Needless to say, the Reformation was fully underway.

Why We Didn’t Divorce Our Church (even though we wanted to)

We wanted to leave. We really did. Frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, we were ready to go. We were done.

But, it wasn’t that easy. We’d been a part of this community for years. We’d worshipped, served, love, and sacrificed alongside every one of these people for so long. We’d made commitments.

It felt like a divorce.

How do you just walk away from your church?

via Flickr (misterraitch)

A while back, I asked “What would make you leave your church?” That’s exactly the question that my wife and I were wrestling with several years back. And, after much soul searching, we decided to stay. I’d like to explain why. But before I do, I need to say something of why we wanted to go. It was more complicated than this, but these were the most pressing issues.

  1. Stagnation. The church excelled at fellowship. It was one big family. We loved each other and enjoyed spending time together. But, we did little outside the family. We’d spend a lot of time talking about how to impact the community, spread the Gospel, reach the lost, etc.  But it never really happened. We’d do it for a season, and then slip back onto the cozy shelter of our potlucks, small groups, and Sunday school classes. Sure, we supported lots of missionaries, and the children’s and youth ministries often reached new people with the Gospel, but the church itself seemed to be treading water.  And even though nothing much happens when you’re treading water, it gets pretty exhausting after a while.
  2. The Pastor. Bringing on a new lead pastor is always an interesting experience. You have to adjust to a new personality, leadership style, preaching style, theological perspective, and philosophy of ministry. It’s not surprising that so many pastoral transition go badly. This was no different. The church had hired a new lead pastor, and my wife and I were having a difficult time with the transition. It just wasn’t good for us, in almost every conceivable way. Although I’d long argued that a church was more than its lead pastor and that you shouldn’t leave a church just because you didn’t like the pastor, we were now experiencing first-hand what it’s like when your pastor really isn’t a good fit for you. We were still involved in productive ministry, but neither of us could see how this could continue long term.
  3. Lack of Leadership. This one was and is the hardest to pin down. I can’t point at any one thing that caused us to be concerned about the overall leadership of the church. It was more a series of little things that together that suggested a lack of decisive leadership on the church’s elder board.
  4. Support for Women. I won’t go into this one too much because I know how sensitive this area is, and I don’t want this to become a post on the role of women in the church. But, I have a gifted wife and amazingly talented daughters (though my youngest had not yet arrived on the scene). So, I’ve long been sensitive to how a church speaks to/about women and the extent to which it involves and supports women in significant ministry roles. (This is true regardless of whether the church is egalitarian or complementarian). And, I had some real questions about whether this church was a good place for us to be long term.
  5. Personal Discontent. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m sure this was a combination of all the above, along with myriad of other, smaller issues. Regardless, we were both struggling with a pervasive discontent that left us really wanting to move on. Indeed, we weren’t looking for reasons to leave; we were trying to see if we had any reason to stay.

Looking back on that difficult time, I wish I could say that we had good, principled, theological reasons for staying. I’d like to brag (humbly) about how well we handled the situation, and share our wisdom and insight with you. But, I can’t.

Here are some of the reasons that I’d like to say caused us to stay at the church.

  1. We understood that the Church is built on grace. If we are going to be Gospel-shaped communities, we need to exemplify grace throughout the Church. So, I wish I could say that we could stay because we wanted to model grace by continuing to work as broken people alongside other broken people to exemplify the Gospel in a broken world.
  2. We understood that the church is not about us. Recognizing that the church exists primarily to glorify God and make his glory known in the world, I wish I could say that we stayed because we placed God’s glory and his mission above our own dissatisfaction.
  3. We were committed to relationships. Seeing the Church more as a family than a social club, I wish I could say that we decided to stay because we valued those relationships so highly.
  4. We knew that the church was more than the pastor. As I mentioned earlier, I have long maintained that people make a sad mistake when the equate the church with its lead pastor. It’s so much more than that. And, I wish I could say this is one of the reasons that we stayed.
  5. We knew that the grass is not always greener. In my experience, leaving a church because you’re dissatisfied rarely works for long. Every church is broken. How could they not be when they’re filled with broken people? Every church fails in some way. This may sound overly pessimistic, but my guess is that if you’re totally satisfied with your church, it probably means (a) you don’t know enough about it yet or (b) its weaknesses and blind spots match yours well enough that you just don’t see them anymore. So, I wish I could say that we stayed because we realized that leaving out of discontent was not a good solution.

In other words, I wish I could say that we stayed because we caught a vision for the Church’s true purpose and how this particular church could still live out that purpose despite its frustrating weaknesses.

I wish I could say that. But I can’t.

We stayed because we were leaving eventually anyway.

We’d already made plans that would require us to move within a couple of years. With the end so clearly in sight, we stayed. We figured that we could gut it out for two years, and then walk away without causing the kind of pain and disruption that would have resulted from just walking away.

Was that the right decision to make? We spared the community some pain, and we were probably more involved in significant ministry for those two years than we would have been as new people at a different church. But, it was a very frustrating two years, especially for my wife. And, in hindsight I fear that we enabled the church to continue some bad patterns because we didn’t force the issue. Maybe staying was the right decision, though our reasons for wanting to move on still seem pretty compelling to me. But, staying because we were leaving anyway was a cop out. In the end, we took the path of least resistance. And, that’s never a good enough reason for staying.

The church deserved better.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]