What Pastors and Parents Need More of in 2023

Knowing when to quit isn’t a specialty of mine. Staying is a strength with a corresponding weakness. 2022 was a challenging year for everyone I know. Without exception, every pastor, leader, or parent would say 2022 was the hardest or one of the most brutal years they have ever lived. I have lots of speculation as to why that is, but little certainty. 

My heart breaks for those with whom I have had the privilege of listening to the unique sorrows they have walked. The older I get, the more I learn, and the fewer answers I feel like I have. I have also learned that pastors are expected to have answers, but I’m not sure that is a good thing for pastors or the people they lead. It can lead to pride in pastors and misplaced dependence on those they lead. 

 I realize many pastors or leaders feel like quitting. I haven’t talked to a pastor who hasn’t contemplated quitting in 2022. Relational conflicts in the church are more profound and more pervasive than I have ever seen. Social pressure from within and outside the church to preach another gospel is stronger than I have ever seen. As a result, most pastors feel isolated relationally and like a failure professionally. 

While they are not answers and may not even be helpful for you, here are the things I think we need to do more of in 2023

We need grace and be dispensers of grace. 

In our society we have lost the art of charity in our relationships. In our churches, we have fixed on the wrong enemy. Rather than seeing what is happening as a spiritual attack on pastors, leaders, and churches and joining together to fight against that spiritual attack, we fill relational gaps with the worst version of someone rather than believing the best in them. Pastors are not exempt. Rather than working through painful situations too often, we leave for greener pastors and bigger pulpits. Pastors, we don’t need a bigger church with a bigger budget; we don’t need a church that meets our needs. We need grace. Buckets of grace, grace given, and grace received. 

We need strength and to strengthen others. 

The challenge with 2022 is we were coming out of a worldwide pandemic and faced challenges as pastors and parents we never had to face. I pray we never have to face again. We were maxed out heading into a year that didn’t let up. Strength is something God gives us each day. How he does that is through the encouragement of his Spirit and Word. Another way God strengthens us is through us loaning strength to one another. Community must make a comeback in 2023. Technology has its place, but human contact and presence are irreplaceable and more necessary than ever. 

We need the mercy of God. 

This year has been a string of personal situations that required me to humble myself again and again. These situations are not easy, but they are painfully good. They remind me of my need for mercy and community. 19th Century poet William Ernest Henley proclaiming the radical individualistic cry that has found its home in 21st Century man, says 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

William Henley says that when difficulty comes our way, we suck it up and fight back alone. Henley ends the poem with the radical individualism that has led our culture into a constant state of anxiety and depression. He doesn’t end with hope or humility but doubles down on his ability to handle tragedy. 

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

This is the battle cry of a heart that has been hardened by sorrow but not softened by tears. What we need in 2023 is a greater awareness of the mercy of God. A great sense of our need and God’s supply. 

Think about that poem and juxtapose its message with this beautiful hymn of worship by Cityalights. The second verse of Christ is mine Forevermore says this: 

Mine are tears in times of sorrow

Darkness not yet understood

Through the valley I must travel

Where I see no earthly good

But mine is peace that flows from Heaven

And the strength in times of need

I know my pain will not be wasted

Christ completes his work in me

How beautiful is that? This hymn of faith is our message for 2023 that though you may travel through valleys where you will see no earthy good. Your pain will not be wasted. Strength and peace will be yours as Christ completes his work in you

Your pain is not wasted. Christ will complete his work in you. May this be true for you and me. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Thanksgiving is More Important Than Christmas

Happy Thanksgiving! This is a shortened version of a post I did for David C. Cook’s Spark ministry blog. You can read the whole article here: Why Thanksgiving Is an Important Response to God’s Gifts. 

Train our kids in Gratitude

As parents, we must both teach and train our kids in the spiritual discipline of gratitude. One of the most important disciplines we can master is thankfulness. Thankfulness is so telling because it reveals much about how we view ourselves and God.

“One of the most important disciplines we can master is thankfulness.”

Growing up, we didn’t have much money, but we had much for which to be thankful. Even though I was very grateful in most situations as I got older, I started to view my walk with God in such a way that I felt God was lucky to have me. I was thankful, but so often, I was thankful for the wrong things.

I can still remember the day the me-centered version of my faith came crashing down. It was horrible, it was painful, and it was beautiful. I realized for the first time that my salvation is a work that Christ has done for me, not a mental decision I make. I realized that the works I do are through the grace that He provides.

When you understand that everything we have is because of all He is, you understand He owes us nothing! He owes me nothing! I owe Him everything! Out of this understanding, we can indeed be grateful for all we have. We live in a state of perpetual gratitude because we didn’t do anything but respond to His calling and receive the gift that He gave.

Gratitude vs. Entitlement in Thanksgiving

When I see Jesus as my everything, I tend to operate from a place of gratitude. The minute I know what I have done I find myself living in a place of entitlement. When I don’t get what I feel that I deserve, I get angry at the person I feel owes me. I did that. I now understand more and more the freedom gratitude brings because God owes me nothing, and I owe Him everything.

Pastor and poet George Herbert understood that even a grateful heart was a gift and a work of grace. Herbert closes his poem entitled Gratefulness with these two powerful stanzas.

“Wherefore I cry, and cry again;

And in no quiet canst thou be,

Till I a thankful heart obtain

Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;

As if thy blessings had spare days:

But such a heart, whose pulse may be

Thy praise.”

Herbert says that he desires that gratitude would so fill our hearts that our hearts will pulse with praise. That thankfulness from us would be the reflexive response to God’s empowering grace.

Christmas and Easter are gifts that we do nothing but receive. Thanksgiving is our right and necessary response to so great a salvation.

 

Lewis on the Need for Better Stories.

Kids need stories.
 
We live in a culture where kids have heard more scary things than they ever did growing up. Kids know more about the sadness in the world than ever before. We see the outworking of this in the anxiety and worry in our kids at a younger age and in a more intense fashion than has ever been seen. Kids are hearing news stories of murder and watching violence in the halls of their schools. Our kids are being sexualized at a younger and younger age and as a result, are losing their capacity for friendship. As adults in their lives, we so often feel helpless.
 
Our reflex as parents to protect our kids from sorrow is to shield them from the world. This is no good either. This does nothing to prepare them for future sorrow. It creates naive adults who don’t have the skills to cope with sorrow or identify and challenge the evil that they see all around them.
 
I side with Lewis. When asked about protecting kids from evils that would frighten them. Lewis believes that we should both protect our kids from the evils of this world and prepare them for the evil in their world, he said this:
 
“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism, and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu [State Police in the USSR] and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.” – C.S. Lewis
 
Since your kids will face cruel enemies the way to help them is to prepare them for those enemies. We do this by telling them stories of knights who had courage in the face of danger. We tell them that this world is not all there is. We remind them that God came into the world and made himself small.
 
The internet has made every sorrow around the world local. Our kids are bombarded by social media hot takes, and 24-hour news that manufactures disasters. Because disasters are what keep viewers glued to the news channel of their choice. Kids don’t need news they definitely don’t need social media. What kids need is for us to tell them stories, read them stories, and help them discover their own stories.
 

Tell your kids stories.

One of the best things you can do for your kids is to tell them your story the good the bad and the ugly. Challenges you faced and how you overcame those challenges. Tell them how you came to faith in Christ. The greatest gift you can give your kids is to tell them who they are and how to live in the place and in the story God has for them.
We think what our kids need is stuff, phones, video games, and vacations but what they need most is place. They need to know the stories about where they have come from they need to know their place in the history of their family and in the history of redemption. Tell your kids your story and teach them how to communicate their story to others. If you do not give your kids the grounding of the story of your family they will seek a story in lesser things. Rehearse with your kids the victories and the sorrows that have made you and your family who they are.

Read stories to your kids.

One of the best ways you can get your kids to live is a different story is to expose them to better stories. Do family worship with your kids and read them the series in the Bible the story of God’s love for them in Christ. It is only through the lens of God’s big story of his redeeming love for your kids that they will understand every other story they read.
Once your kids can read start giving them good books to read. Books that are filled with virtue and goodness, with tales from other worlds that help them live rightly in their own. Our world has lost the value that classic works of fiction can do for kids. We teach them to read so they can get into college and get a great job. The purpose of reading is not that. If gainful employment for the next generation is the goal of literacy we have lost our way. Our kids may succeed in business but will do so with an impoverished soul.

Help the discover their story. 

With scripture as the foundation and your family history and classical stories as a framework, your kids will be equipped to understand and make sense of a world gone mad. When your kids understand who they are and more importantly whose they are they will not fall in love with lesser stories. Our children will be able to translate every experience in the vernacular of story. They will learn when to be brave and when to fight another day. Your kids will meet cruel enemies in Juinor High or on the field of battle. If they have no idea of heaven they will despair at the pain in this world. If your kids do not know of brave knights who fight dragons they will turn and run when they need to protect those who are weak.
 
C.S. Lewis was right kids need stories. In our, world of impoverished imaginations, our kids need them more than ever. Start telling them stories today.

Pastor: You Were Not Made for Fame

We live in a culture that is defined by fame. A culture that is saturated by fame. A culture that sees their worth based not on their financial security or social standing like previous generations had. Our cultural moment sees the acquisition of fame as the greatest good, we measure our value by followers, fans, and likes. If you ask most kids what they want to be when they get older they say usually say a YouTuber. That is not what kids said when I was young. When I was a kid most kids wanted to be the president, a businessman, a policeman or a teacher.

The lie that our culture has given into is that if I have fame I will be enough. Our culture has placed fame above power and money because those things in our information, social media-driven culture flow toward fame. Sadly this desire for fame is not absent in the church. We measure the success of our work as a pastor by weekend attendance and event participation.

What is more tragic is the people who are supposed to be a prophetic voice to the perils of culture have themselves turned the vice of fame into a virtue. Celebrity preachers wearing streetwear worth thousands, hanging with A-list stars proclaiming that they want to “Make Jesus Famous.” As the years have passed we have seen the reality is that those same celebrity preachers became more famous and Jesus became more distant. Because a heart that pursues fame as its greatest good can not pursue Christ. The way of Jesus is antithetical to fame. Jesus would regularly say hard things that were not popular because his kingdom is an upsidedown kingdom. Yet so often the temptation and the advice given to pastors is to avoid controversy. Don’t say things that will alienate anyone.

We have given ourselves and bought into the marketing lie that more is better than fame is the goal. The chasing of fame comes at the expense of our soul. You can not desire fame as your pursuit without fame taking its toll.

Contemporary pastors are tempted to measure their success, not to mention fulfillment, precisely by how well-liked they are.

M. Craig Barnes

The temptation to be liked and loved and famous is ever-present in the heart of a pastor. The temptation to be efficient with people is ever-present

Eugene Peterson commenting on the pastoral vocation said this:

The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.

Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives, we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.

Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was not adequate. I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritual – rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.

The toll that fame has taken on celebrity pastors and leaders over the past five years is staggering. We were not built for fame. None of us were. Jib Fowles, author of Star Struck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found that the average age of death for celebrities overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years for other Americans. His findings also revealed that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American.

Should a Christian seek to become famous? The short answer is no. Should pastors seek fame? No. The Christian life has no shortage of opportunities to seek fame at the expense of cross-centered living.

Our job as Christian leaders is not to make Jesus Famous it is to live lives of humility and lives submitted to God. It is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Fame is not a goal to be obtained for the Christian pastor it is cancer to be eradicated.

About twelve years ago I started speaking at conferences more often. It was nice because people would come up to you and thank you for what you shared and tell you that you were amazing. The lure of disembodied ministry to the church is real. At a breakout, someone came up to me and asked how do you stay humble?

My answer was this:

  1. Stay relationally grounded – I told them what keeps me grounded is sitting down with kids and their mom to help her tell them their father left them. What keeps me grounded is holding the hand of a dying member. What keeps me grounded is doing the wedding of kids I taught in pre-school. What keeps me grounded is standing with young parents as they say goodbye to their newborn baby who died way too early.

  2. Have Accountability in your life – Everyone needs someone who can tell you no. We all need family, we need old friends and people who can speak into your life. You need people in your life who know you and who are unimpressed by you. The people in my church don’t know I speak at conferences, write books or have a blog because at the end of the day those things aren’t that impressive. What they do care about is how am I modeling Jesus in my everyday life to them and their kids. Am I showing up when they need me most?

  3. Have a strong theology of the Cross – A God-centered theology displaces the sinful tendency we have to place ourselves at the center of the universe. Martin Luther famously contrasted the theology of the cross with the theology of glory.

    The theology of glory a theology of fame “is this idea that we are always improving, we’re getting better, and can get better. The more faith we have or the more work we put into our life, we will see the financial blessing, health, protection, and progress- it’s always about the progress of the Christian life. We’re moving up and onward, and the design of God is this very purpose: the more we put in by faith and obedience, the more we give to God, then the more God will bless us. The reason why it’s called a theology of glory is that it’s for our own glory- the more that we are doing, the more we’re advancing- it is pointing towards us.” – John Moffitt

    The theology of the Cross is the exact opposite of the theology of glory. “When we are called into faith with Christ, we are called to die with him. Paul says in Philippians 2 that not only have we been called to believe, we have been gifted or granted to believe, but also to suffer for his sake. As we enter into this relationship with God, there is not a guarantee of our health being protected or our wealth being protected. Rather we are told multiple times by Peter and Paul that we are going to suffer for the sake of the cross.”  – John Moffitt

My plea to my fellow pastors is to seek white-hot holiness over the banality of fame. Fame does not come easy and it does not come free. Fame like Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venise always demands its pound of flesh.

Christmas Reminder

The reality of Christmas is it is a reminder of the miracle of a God. A God who is uncontainable and unrestrainable made himself small entered into our world to redeem to restore. He has come. He has come to destroy our two greatest enemies sin and death. No matter what 2021 was like for you the annunciation is a reminder that Christ has come to make all things new.

Merry Christmas

Annunciation

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

John Donne