Don’t Burn Bridges.

Remember when Facebook was for sharing photos of your children and videos of otters holding hands? Me neither. Social media has become a battlefield of conflicting ideas. A minefield of potentially explosive issues. It has gone from a digital scrapbook to a digital equivalent of a dual. Every post seems to be about the defense of a person or idea and with those who disagree hurling horribly generalized caricatures of who they think you are based on what party they think you are a part of.

As Christians, we have to guard against this. Some of the most scathing reprimands of scripture are towards those who can not control their tongues. In James 1 where we famously quote the passage that states “True religion is taking care of the widows and orphans.” This is a feel-good statement that is completely true and we love it. You know what it says in the verse right in front of it. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle (control) his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Every sin that we commit is first a sin of the heart and second a sin of our mouth before it is a sin of our actions. Therefore what we think about, what we desire affects what we say. How we speak and what we type is a pretty good indication of the state of our heart.

Here is the bad news. None of us do this. Why because the Bible tells us our heart is desperately wicked. Kierkegaard called this the crooked timber of the heart. Our words will not change until our hearts have been transformed.

A preacher I respect greatly said this: “[James] calls for us to have a tamed tongue. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re a Christian. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re walking in obedience. And as you look at your life, beloved, if you see those things coming out of your mouth that ought not to come, you need to confess it as sin and turn from it. And how you react to those times when bitter water comes out of the sweet fountain is the key to your spiritual strength, the key to your spiritual effect and power.”

Our speech will not change until our hearts are transformed here is the good news. That is what God does best. He takes our hearts of stone and gives us a new heart with new desires and new words. Will we still slip in our speech online and offline? Yes. Should we strive to grow in the grace that God provides and be more kind in what we say think and do? Yes. This is a work God does and we join with him growing in his likeness day by day.

Here are a few things I am trying to do better when engaging people online.

  1. Ask more questions and make fewer statements – Look to learn not only prove a point.
  2. Delete more comments than you publish – If you know me, you would say there is no way you do this I have read what you have published online. I delete A LOT of comments, and so should you.
  3. Clarify when you don’t understand don’t assume you understand – This is essential offline as well as online. Communication doesn’t happen when two people speak. It occurs when two people speak, and there is understanding.
  4. If you know the person in real life call or text them to have an honest conversation about something you don’t understand – Use online disagreement to build bridges, not burn them. Talking in person builds bridges torching someone’s wall burns bridges.
  5. Take regular breaks from social media – I regularly take breaks to keep from becoming an angry, anxious, annoying person. You need to take more breaks than you do.
  6. Try to verify if a story is true before you share it – This is becoming more and more difficult to do even some fact-checking sites have become politicized. Try to use original sources, give away credit, and use common sense. If a story sounds like something, your craziest friends often say it’s probably not true.
  7. Try and stay friends with people who think differently than you. The mute button may be your friend at times, so use it. – Try not to burn bridges. Sometimes you will have to mute people online so you can stay friends offline, and that’s ok. Offline friends are more important than online friends.
  8. Know when to walk away, know when to run – Sometimes comments get ugly fast. Don’t go there. Walk away.
  9. When you overstep, and you will apologize without expecting them to apologize in return – If you only follow one of these pointers, let it be this one. I had to use it this week. I had to text a friend and apologize for what I said it was too strong and didn’t convey what I wanted to say because it was not seasoned with grace.

We all need God’s help to control our speech so that our thoughts, words, and actions convey the grace that is ours in Christ. What you say and what you type will signal to a watching world a heart that has been transformed by grace. May this be more and more true of us every day.

How Do I Start Over After COVID?

In my last blog post, I mentioned that because of the devastating effects of the quarantine, the ongoing fears, and challenges of COVID, we have to start over. So many of us assumed that this was a temporary pause, but it seems that it is more than that. It seems to be a long term pause. It seems that we are not going to be able to go back to normal, I think we are going to have to start over.

I shared a few things I think we are going to have to do in Youth and Kids ministry to start over well. I don’t like to say new normal because I think it’s more a recalibration in every area of life. During the past six months, I have seen many people do this well. They have reassessed their lives and moved closer to family and spent more time with family. I have also seen others who have struggled and have turned to toxic relationships and substances to find peace in the middle of the madness we presently find ourselves.

So the question I want to tackle to today is How do I start over? How do we make the changes necessary in our lives and in our local communities of faith.

How Do I Start Over?

1. Read your Bible and Pray – This isn’t just a token response. Nothing will change you or your ministry like the Word of God. In times that are uncertain when we don’t know what to do, we say this “We don’t know what to do but God our eyes are on you.” Often times we look for clever ideas we turn to innovation rather than humbling ourselves in prayer to God for wisdom and grace to lead. J.C. Ryle on his brief book on prayer says this:

There is everything on God’s part to make prayer easy, if men will only attempt it. All things are ready on His side. Every objection is anticipated. Every difficulty is provided for. The crooked places are made straight, and the rough places are made smooth. There is no excuse left for the prayerless man. There is a way by which any man, however sinful and unworthy, may draw near to God the Father. Jesus Christ has opened that way by the sacrifice He made for us upon the cross. The holiness and justice of God need not frighten sinners and keep them back. Only let them cry to God in the name of Jesus, – only let them plead the atoning blood of Jesus, – and they shall find God upon a throne of grace, willing and ready to hear. The name of Jesus is a never-failing passport to our prayers. In that name, a man may draw near to “God with boldness, and ask with confidence. God has engaged to hear him. Reader, think of this. Is this not encouragement?

J.C. Ryle

2. Read old authors – There is no such thing as a new problem. There can be a new problem to us. But there is nothing new under the sun. Why old authors are helpful is they faced everything we are facing but did so without the blinders we presently have. Modern people turn to modern people to find their way out and its the blind leading the blind. We need old voices to help us with our “new” problems. one great example of this is Martin Luther addressing his critics during the Great Plague. He explains his actions and the actions of those around him with pastoral wisdom that is helpful then and is helpful now.

Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. That is not trusting God but tempting him. . . .

No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places where your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” 

Martin Luther

This is the response we need in COVID one that avoids the pitfalls in the media and mankind. We must not be brash or foolish we must love our neighbor at risk of our very life and we must not tempt God. You can read his complete response entitled Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague.

3. We need voices outside our normal circle who love the church enough to tell us the truth. – You need a coach. Everyone needs a coach. If Aaron Judge needs a hitting coach if Michael Phelps needed a swimming coach, you need a ministry coach. There are lots of good ones out there full disclosure. I am starting a Youth Pastor Family Pastor ministry cohort this fall through Gospel at Center. My friend Jenny Smith is starting one for kids’ ministry people. Another friend of mine, Jared Kennedy, is starting one as well. Find a coach to get an outside perspective because you need one to change the right things in the right way for the right reason.

Starting over doesn’t mean we go back to the same old same old. It means that we must turn to God for wisdom, learn from our past, and lean on each other.

We Are Going to Have to Start Over

Over the past few months, we have learned that there really is only one thing that remains constant…that is that nothing is constant. COVID has come in and seems to change everything we have held dear for years overnight. Just when we adjust there are new challenge and changes we face daily. COVID has come and has done damage to the health of our country but also it has shaken the foundations of our confidence and the normality of our daily lives.

In times of prolonged uncertainty novel is not the answer. People don’t want a new normal they don’t want digital everything they want the comfort of old truth. Coming out of quarantine I knew that we were going to have a slow path back but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what the reality presently is…I think we are going to have to start over.

I say this because about 10% of our kids have come back and only 10% of our volunteers have returned. There are lots of reasons for this. Many in isolation have reevaluated priories and have moved to be closer to family, some are still scarred by the daily barrage of media, still, others are waiting for a cure. These are uncertain times. These are times filled with difficulty for every leader because no matter what decision you make someone will not be pleased.

We in our churches have been dealing with things as they have arisen on the fly. I have seen much creativity from the church in creating Zoom small groups for Youth and doing kids shows on YouTube. Those are great adaptations but the longer everything lingers the more I am convinced that I think the reality is that we are going to need to start over. I have often thought about what would I do differently in kids and youth ministry if I had to start over from scratch knowing what I know now after 23 years leading in the same church.

Here are a few things we are going to need to change.

  1. Discipleship needs more thought and investment than environments. There has been much focus on excellence in kids and youth environments and not enough on how do we create lifelong followers of Christ. What things do we need to teach and how can we teach them to kids in a way that creates lifelong faith in Christ? These need to consume our thoughts and drive our budgets.
  2. We need to rely more on training live teachers and less on video elements. Video doesn’t have the same impact in a zoom or online setting that a loving teacher teaching kids live over zoom or making phone calls to kids can make. Video is wrong but people are better.
  3. Small group leaders are going to have to know kids better. When difficulty hits small group leaders that know their kids are better equipped to reach out to those families. We are going to need to create opportunities for small group leaders to connect more intentionally with parents and look at their small group as a little church and not as child care during the service. We need a better structure for coaching small group leaders to spiritually direct kids rather than to simply disseminate religious information to children.
  4. We are going to have to run more of what we do like a small church rather than a megachurch. Our bigger campuses have a return rate of 10% but at our smaller campus kids are coming back at rates like 80%. It seems like for the foreseeable future people are more comfortable in smaller settings. Over the last 30 years, the people who we have looked to for direction are the kids and youth ministry experts from the largest churches in America. I know many of these people and they are amazing leaders but our solution going forward does not seem to be bigger and better but intimate and intentional.
  5. Our preaching needs to be more Biblically driven and less topically driven. The reason for this is our kids need to know what God reveals to us in his word more than cute stories and applications that are fun but not formational. Kids need fathers in the faith to proclaim Biblical truth far more than they need cool older brothers to hang with them. I am not saying our approach should be informational at the expense of being relational. What I am saying is that our approach needs to Biblical if it is to be transformational.

I know starting over sounds overwhelming because it is overwhelming. I also think that this is a great opportunity for us to re-evaluate our approach to ministry, our motivation in ministry, and ultimately what the fruit of our ministry should look at.

If we walk away from COVID unchanged by its far reaching effects in every area of life we have missed an opportunity to start over to reset and and to reevaluate what matters most.

Pastors, we can’t go back to a new normal. We shouldn’t try to keep things the same. We need to take this moment to learn how to make our churches smaller and make our ministry more personal.

How would you start over if you had too? Because I think we are going to have to do exactly that.