The Fear of Death and Why You Should Stop Saying Stay Safe.

Fourteen years ago today, I was much younger and much more naive about life and God’s ways. I thought if I did the right thing, good things would happen every time. That if I said the right things, people would feel comfort and joy every time. I found out that God doesn’t work the way I think he should work. God is not tame, but he is good. I found out that the God we serve is not safe. All my life to that point, I thought he was safe, and the day I realized he was not safe was also the day I began to question if he was even good. 

How I have come to know God over the past decade and a half has changed the way I see him, the way I trust Him, and the way I see everything because of him. It is not an overstatement to say I was blind, but now I see. That day fourteen years ago, led to a chain of events that made me question the goodness of God; it led me to struggle with anxiety as a result of an overwhelming fear of dying. 

It was nearly two years of working through the implications of me thinking that if I pray enough, give enough and serve enough, good things will come from that as my payment from God because of my goodness. I had grown up in church my whole life, and I thought the gospel was for sinners, not for me. I thought God was in my debt because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was angry fourteen years ago because I didn’t think God heard the prayers of a sweet family suffering far more than I ever had. I was angry because I prayed for a boy filled with more faith than I had ever had. He didn’t rise. I was angry with God because he owed me and wasn’t coming through when I was calling in my favors, eared through years and years of good behavior. 

I was a Pharisee. People look at Pharisees in the Bible and say they are religious zealots who don’t love God they love themselves. That isn’t so. They were some of the most outwardly perfect people you could ever imagine. A pattern of good behavior marked their understanding of life. They encountered Jesus, and he was not the Messiah they imagined. They killed Jesus because he was not and could not have been the God they had long-awaited. I was one of those. I had an idea of God that he always answered my prayers in the way I prayed them, He always did what I thought was right, that he is more pleased with me because of my goodness. I knew God but not his ways. 

It changed one day reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to one of my babies. I read how a woman who was a sinner came to Jesus and took the most important and expensive thing; she had a jar of perfume she broke it, and poured it on the feet of Jesus. The religious people thought this was a waste. It smelled like the lilies in the summer field. It wasn’t a waste. They were mad at God’s kindness to this sinner. They thought Jesus should not be kind to her. “That woman is a sinner!” they grumbled. “We’re the good ones,” God spoke to me as I was reading that to my child and said, that’s you. I knew God but not the ways of God. 

Jesus Calms the Storm

My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.

The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.

Michael Zell
Jesus Calms The Sea of Galilee

There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.

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.

Should I Cancel VBS Because of COVID?

No, I don’t think you should. I think we need to reimagine what VBS will look like. But I don’t think canceling VBS is a good idea. I used to be one of the #NeverVBSers. I have come to see the value of VBS to a church has never been greater.

Why Does VBS Still Matter?

When VBS started years ago the main purpose was evangelism. That is still a valid reason for doing VBS but the world has changed. In that period of the history of our nation, most people attended church, and those who did so regularly attended 4+ times a month. There were Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night service. Most committed members attended all three. VBS for them was outreach.

In modern America, the church has gone from being the pillar of the social and spiritual life of our nation to being deemed nonessential. If COVID-19 has done anything is awaken us to a reality that our country has changed and how people view the church has changed. We see it in how often people attend. In previous generations, people were thought to be regular attenders when they attended four times or more a month. Today regular attendance is when you attend once to twice a month. VBS in a climate of low church attendance must be more about discipleship than outreach.

VBS is not just something we do it is something we must do. The numbers are staggering. LifeWay did a survey of Southern Baptist churches and found that 2.5 million kids attend VBS annually, over 70,000 choose to follow Christ and nearly 1,500 felt called to fulltime missions. That is only data from the Southern Baptists. In an age of declining church attendance VBS is an indispensable tool to disciple kids. You have 15 hours with kids in one week that equivalent to 7 MONTHS of regular church attendance! 7 MONTHS!

Lastly, I would argue that there is definite value in maintaining habitual practices. This spiritual muscle memory, if you will, is essential for the longterm health of the church. Kids who don’t go to VBS this year are more likely not to go next year. What I find with most people who stop attending church is they fill their time with other things.

I hope I have convinced you not to cancel VBS because of COVID. So how are we supposed to do VBS with the current social distance limitations? I sat down with Tony Kummer a kids pastor and blogger from Kentucky and David Rausch a former kids pastor and currently a curriculum developer of Go! Curriculum and Bolt! Digital VBS curriculum to discuss what COVID VBS could look like.

What are My Options for VBS During COVID?

In thinking through COVID, there seem to be two options for VBS, either Backyard Vacation Bible Schools or Digital VBS. I asked David what his thoughts were.

He said, “From church to church you have to decide what your kids and what your community has an appetite for. There might be many communities that are still looking for a digital option (or because of state regulations digital is your only option) or virtual VBS. I know that many families are starting to have screen fatigue because of digital learning…but I am more of a fan of the backyard VBS where you can send home VBS for families” to do at home with their kids and their friends and neighbors.

With traditional VBS, not an option this year it’s a great opportunity to try something new something like David is suggesting a digitally delivered VBS for individual families or a digitally-driven VBS that families can use to host VBS at their home in their backyard for neighbors and friends.

Our church has created a digital version that we show as part of the curriculum we have written for our church that we are hoping to adapt this year for our families. This isn’t a reality for most churches so David and his team created an option for you no matter your church size or budget. It’s called Bolt. It a digitally delivered VBS solution for your church that is perfect for this season when traditional VBS’s are not an option for most of us.

The reason David likes the digitally-driven Backyard Bible School model better than just a digital delivered option is the fact it preserves a couple of the important directivities of VBS. It allows for evangelism reaching out to kids who may never come to your church building in the context of relationships.

The most important thing that happens in VBS is the relationships, the video is really just the vehicle, it tells people here is what you do, press pause and go do that thing.

My Plea to You as a Pastor or Ministry Leader.

Don’t cancel VBS think differently about VBS. Create your own content, tweak the VBS curriculum your church already bought or try out Bolt.

I don’t think there is a better tool in children’s ministry to intensely disciple kids and to intentionally reach kids than VBS. You have kids for the equivalent of 7 months of church attendance. The question you are probably asking is all the effort to tweak VBS worth it? My answer is yes.

One of the things that cemented the value of VBS in my mind was many years ago we put on a VBS it was a lot of work. We were exhausted at the end. We had bussed in kids from a poorer section of town and one of the kids who rode that bus every day named Michael decided to trust Christ with his whole heart. Several weeks after VBS someone came to me and told me that the following week our VBS Michael was attending another day camp and had drowned in the lake. I was devastated and shaken because I realized the fragility of life and the importance of the gospel.

Is Bolt the only solution? No, but it’s a good one. We aren’t using Bolt because we make our own VBS but not every church can do that so give Bolt a try. I’m not getting anything from Bolt but I do believe in what they are doing. I don’t understand why God chooses to use the foolishness of preaching the foolishness of events like VBS. But he does. I pray that in this cultural moment we will not fail to proclaim the gospel to those like Michael so desperately need to hear it. Please don’t cancel VBS.