You’re Going to be Ok.

There are few things more difficult and few things more important than being with a family who recently lost someone they love. To be with someone who breathes their last is a trust and a responsibility we have with those we love. It’s a reminder that God how issues our first breath is with us when we breathe our last. I remember visiting a mother in the hospital who had recently received a terminal diagnosis and she struggling with fear. Because of the reality of the hope she had at that moment I reminded her that no matter the outcome God was with her: “Everything is going to be ok.” Her countenance changed and she died a few days later. Everything after was hard but it’s been ok she is free of pain and with her savior. Her family whose hearts are broken are trusting Jesus through the storm.

There is a phrase in Latin Memento Mori, which means in English, “Remember, you must die.” Talking about death, understanding death, and living with the knowledge you will die have all fallen on hard times. We live in a culture that idolizes youth and beauty and believes that money is how both those prizes can be achieved. The reality is that we do much of what we do in America because we are running from death. We struggle with anxiety and worry in this life because we have expunged death from every aspect of our daily life.

I go to and perform many funerals in a year. There was a season in my life I attended or performed a funeral nearly once a week. The thing that always struck me was there are no kids at funerals. There are very few teens and college-age kids at a funeral. Most people don’t go to their first funeral until late in life. This detachment and stigmatization of death have created a culture that fears death more than anything else.

This culture of positive confession and beautiful people has infiltrated the church. This detachment and paralytic fear of death that most Christians have has put us out of touch with some of the most critical and far-reaching themes of the Bible. Themes of salvation and forgiveness, sin and death, and suffering and victory.

If you have been to an older church, you would have had to walk through tombstones to come and celebrate the Lord’s day. Preachers used to have a skull they would put on their desk as a reminder that they were dying. They were preaching to people who were dying. And if you want to reach those who are dying, you do it by thinking A LOT about death, not by coming up with positive messages to avoid it.

At every funeral, I perform I read this text from Ecclesiastes 7:1-4.

Wisdom for Life
1 A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. 
And the day you die is better than the day you are born. 
2 Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. 
After all, everyone dies— 
so the living should take this to heart. 
3 Sorrow is better than laughter, 
for sadness has a refining influence on us. 
4 A wise person thinks a lot about death, 
while a fool thinks only about having a good time. 

Ecclesiastes 7:1–4.

Funerals serve a purpose in this life. They are to as the Psalmist says in Psalm 90 Cause us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. A wise person thinks A LOT about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time now.

The reason this is so foolish is that we have it backward. We don’t think about heaven because our hope isn’t in heaven; it’s in the things we can gain an acquire. We don’t long for heaven with the homesickness that we should because we are so focused on making this life our best life. We have bought into the lie that aspects of evangelicalism have been selling to the world. If you believe God enough, if you follow him, you will have everything this world has to offer. We want a BMW more than we want heaven. Because our hearts want happiness and we think things will give us that.

Holy Thursday. Lord Have Mercy.

The Latin phrase Kyrie Eleison is translated to “Lord have mercy” in English. The power and need for this prayer from the church has become more valuable and more needed than ever. When we are at our weakest, we are most aware of our need for mercy. In America, we have deified love. We say that God is love, and that is true, but how we mean it is not. I think describing God’s love in terms of his mercy is a much better way to go.

Love for us holds a romantic notion in the Rick Astley sense we want a God who will never do anything to us that we don’t like.

Never gonna let you down

Never gonna run around and desert you

Never gonna make you cry

Never gonna say goodbye

Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

Rick Astley

When we think of God in terms of how we desire or experience love. We fail to understand the justice, the holiness of God that is seen in his love for us experienced in mercy. I love Ephesians 2. In it, Paul describes us and our sin that we are dead in our sins, following the prince of the power of the air. In his description of us, he says we are both guilty and lost. He then pivots and describes who God is. God is rich in mercy.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved— 

Ephesians 2:4-5

Mercy presupposes guilt and salvation. Love presupposes our experience with love. What we want is love. What we need is mercy. God comes to us in mercy. But again, we misunderstand what mercy looks like. Two of the greatest authors of the 21st century didn’t. Tolkien and Lewis both understood God’s mercy. In a moving blog post at Desiring God, the author describes Tolkien’s understanding of mercy.

“In October of 1958, Tolkien wrote a letter to a Miss Beare, an inquiring reader who had a host of peculiar and specific questions about “The Lord of the Rings.” In a follow-up letter (actually just a draft of a letter that was never sent), Tolkien pens the paragraph that so deeply impacting. Writing about the immortality of Elves and mortality of Men (a mortality the Elves coveted), Tolkien says,

A divine “punishment” is also a divine “gift,” if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make “punishments” (that is, changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 286)

Therefore, a man who is subject to death and suffering and loss (like Tolkien and each of us) is to be envied for the precious good we receive because of the “punishments” we receive (the consequences of sin, the awful “changes” to the original design brought about by the fall). Tolkien goes on to say, “A ‘mortal’ man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one” — that is, than an Elf who never dies.

The loss of a father, or mother, or brother, or child, then, as much as we would never want it, or ask for it, can be a gift, if accepted, says Tolkien because it can bring about a greater good, an ultimate blessing we would not have enjoyed without having to feel the pain and heartache.”

Mercy is the love of God acting in concert with his justice. Mercy is the love of God in concert with the other attributes of God. When we ask God for mercy, we are asking him to intervene in our world and in our lives, but we are also asking him to transform our hearts to see punishments as gifts.

Tolkien’s college C.S. Lewis shared his friend’s understanding of mercy. One of Lewis’ friends wrote to Lewis about the passing of his wife. Lewis’s response was one that had been marked by his own particular need for God’s mercy.

One way or another, the thing had to die. Perpetual spring-time is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in what it could have died tho’ both the parties went on living. You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how v(ery) frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God.

Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy (p. 210). HarperOne. Kindle Edition. 

Lewis reminded him of the reality of death and the mercy of God, even when that mercy was severe. Lewis was telling his friend that every relationship must come to an end. There are many ways in which that end could have come, but Lewis reminded his friend Sheldon of the mercy of God towards him. That even though his wife was taken, God had not left him. In fact, Sheldon came to saving faith through the death of his wife. His loss was a severe mercy.

What we want is love what we need is mercy.

Thou has done for me all things well,
hast remembered, distinguished, indulged me.

All my desires have not been gratified,
but thy love denied them to me
when fulfilment of my wishes would have
proved my ruin or injury.

My trials have been fewer than my sins,
and when I have kissed the rod it has fallen
from thy hands.

Thou hast often wiped away my tears,
restored peace to my mourning heart,
chastened me for my profit.
All thy work for me is perfect,
and I praise thee.

Arthur Bennett
Valley of Vision (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 193

But, What About… The Bible?

In a recent blog post, I wrote for David C. Cook’s content site for kids ministry leaders called Spark. I talked about in recent years there has been similar language used by apostates in explaining their “de-construction” stories. One of those familiar tunes they all seem to play is the God of the Old Testament vs. the God of the New. These arguments that modern apostates pose have a cascading effect. Once you attack the nature of God, the next domino to fall is the authority of scripture. What is interesting is that those who apostatize follow the same path that that theologians follow in systematic theology. Apostates tear down the foundations that have been systematically laid.

I had a conversation with my good friend Jana Magruder Director of LifeWay Kids. She recently wrote a book called Nothing Less: Engaging Kids in a Lifetime of Faith. In this book, she and her team discuss the results of a survey done by LifeWay. They found nine indicators that led to lifelog faith in kids. The most surprising finding was that the number one indicator of a lifelong faith is not the faith of your parents. It isn’t church attendance; it isn’t even generations of attendance in the same church. The number one indicator of a lifelong faith is Bible reading. And it’s not even close.

Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian

A. W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer says, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian,” this Jana says is the basis of the book that they wrote. Jana said at LifeWay they were looking for what creates lifelong faith in kids.

At first, we were looking for a formula for a recipe that if we could get this right, we could have more assurance that our kids are not going to leave the church as a different research study says. So many leave and some come back. What can we do as parents and pastors? When we got the results back, our research team came back to us. It said you know you’ve got the number one answer. It is so far away from numbers two, three, and four that it really needs to be in its own separate category, so as you write this book, don’t make it look like number one was this then number two after that… it needs to stand alone, it needs to have its own place. Our research shows it so far in importance and value from the other things. The answer was Bible reading.

Jana Magruder

Jana said that this finding is “profound because it’s not the first thing our brains go to.” In Nothing Less, Jana and her team reveal this is not what we are chasing as a culture. Travel sports, grades, private school, Christian school, home school, big church or small church…” None of these made the difference Bible reading did.

 I think the reason why we miss this is because while we may value scripture, I’m not sure we see it as authoritative.

What Do You Do When Sundays are Taken Away?

Recently I read *Resilient – Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. One of the things that stood out to me was when the authors described that most kids’ ministry leaders don’t have a metric for measuring success in kids’ ministry.

I know this to be true because one of the questions I ask at conferences is “How do you measure success in kids ministry” to which most people respond with a particular number of kids that attend regularly. I then ask “What do you do to disciple kids?” To this question, most people respond by saying “Sunday Morning.” I say this because there was a time in my life when those would have been my answer.

The metric I used to use was how many kids came and did they have fun. This wasn’t a metric that reflected kids who were becoming disciples of Christ. It was metric that measured fans of Pastor Sam. I was sincere. I was also sincerely wrong. I wanted kids to have fun. I wanted kids to think I was fun more than I wanted them to love and treasure Jesus. I would never have said that but what I measured did for me.

Around twelve years ago God opened my eyes to see the gospel like I never had before. It led me on a journey I am still on to be someone who treasures Christ above all else. It changed my priorities in life and it changed how I measure success in ministry. There was a time in my life where being known by my peers trumped being known by God. I would never have said that but what I measured (likes, fans, and Blog stats) did for me.

If we want to raise kids who treasure Christ. Kids who say Christ is enough for me. We have to lead different we have to measure different things.

Mistake Number 1
– I thought that you disciple kids by being more innovative in looking forward rather than sacred in looking backward.

If I was raising my kids 10, 50, 200 years ago what would that life look like and what would my priorites have been. Just to challange my thinking to think beyond the expectations of the norms of today’s culture. So I would really challange that parent (pastor) to think what are those long term outcomes and goals for your child and what would the pathway be to help your child get there?

Matt Markins CSO Awanna

As a pastor, I thought innovation was the key to discipling kids. When I was young everything new was always better. The older I have gotten the more I have come to realize that what kids don’t need is a relentless barrage of new. What they need is old and true that is presented as new.

What do we measure in our kids ministry? Do our kids know the ten commandments, do they know the overarching story of the Bible, do our kids know the first question of the New City Catechism. Do our kids leave our ministry knowing Jesus is everything?

Mistake Number 2 – I counted kids to know how many were coming rather than who is missing.

Numbers are not wrong. Counting how many kids you have is not wrong. Thinking you are discipling kids because you have 99 coming is not discipleship. You should be counting your kids not so you can revel in the 99 but so that you know the 1 that is missing. We have fallen victim to the American spirit of entrepreneurialism rather than the biblical definition of a shepherd.

We measure how well we are doing not by sheer numbers alone but by who isn’t there and finding out why.

Mistake Number 3 – I thought kids loved Jesus for the rest of their lives by me making information fun, accessible, and memorable.

I spent hours coming up with fun creative ways to transfer information. Should kids ministry be fun and exciting? YES! I have come to learn over the years that the primary goal is not to get kids to know all the facts about God. What matters more than what kids know is what they love. Our job as leaders and parents is to form their loves.

Do we create opportunities for kids to experience God? I don’t mean in any way that we elevate experience over truth. As I have said earlier our kids need to have faith that is grounded in scripture and informed by history so that when they have an experience with God they have the proper framework to understand it and that experience does its work. It forms their loves.

Kids need to know the truth about God but kids also need to experience the person of God.

What should our metric be in kids ministry?

What do kids know?
Catechism
10 Commandments
Lords Prayer
Apostles Creed
The big story of the Bible

Is every kid known by someone?
Does at least one adult leader know each kid and their family?
Can each kid name at least one adult they admire from the church?

Is what kids love more important to us than what they know?

Do we create opportunities for kids to learn to hear God speak?
Do we create opportunities for kids to respond to God?
Do we model as leaders what a life that is gripped by the love of God look like?
Do our kids know that how they love others shows how they love God?

We have got to think in terms of creating disciples more than creating environments. We have to elevate the discussion around how are we as the church going to look backward so that we can move forward.

We see how serious a pandemic can be. If we do not start talking about discipleship, holiness, and gospel centrality in kids and youth ministry the church in North America will become a sterile form of religion that is driven to and fro by every wave culture sends our way. We have to realize that Sunday alone is not enough to disciple kids because we now know Sunday can be take away. If we want to raise kids that are resilient we have got to start measuring more than attendance and discipling with more than take-home papers alone.