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

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.

Helping Kids Deal with Sorrow and Death.

One of the more difficult things I have had to do in my years of pastoral ministry is talk with kids about death. Explaining death and sorrow to kids has a profound influence on kids and a refining influence on us.

Recently a friend of mine gave me a book to read written by Jonathan Gibson entitled The Moon is Always Round. The book tells the story of his family dealing with the loss of their baby at 39 weeks. Dr. Gibson, a professor of theology, explained to his three-year-old son the goodness of God through a powerful metaphor of the shape of the moon we can see versus the shape the moon is always.

Dr. Gibson would often ask his son what is the shape of the moon and he would respond that it was a crescent; his dad would ask, what shape is it always? His son would reply, “Dad, the moon is always round.” Dr. Gibson would ask what does that mean? His son would say, “God is always good.”

What a profound metaphor. To have a metaphor that is biblically faithful and continually available is a gift and mercy. There is a part of the moon that we can see, the sorrows we face, but no matter the shape, the reality is that the moon is round because God is always good.

What Gibson is saying is that we see the face of the moon as half, full or crescent. But the shape of the moon we can see is not always the shape of the moon. The moon, no matter what we can see, is always round. He uses this illustration to show us that we don’t always see everything God is doing. We see parts but what we can’t always see is what is really true. Just like the moon’s shape never changes, God’s nature never does either. The moon is always round, and God is always good.

In a recent podcast, Jonathan Gibson recounts the conversation that led to the creation of his book. I highly recommend it.

Talking to our kids is important because death and sorrow are unavoidable and inevitable. We live in a culture that avoids death, but even in our greatest sorrows, we can and should point our kids to the goodness of God.

We live in a world that deifies youth and runs from death. We live in a culture obsessed with cheating death because they are convinced that this life is all there is. We have this idea that God is limited if he exists at all, but we are limitless because of medical advancements and scientific discoveries. Scripture tells us the truth that we are limited. Our days are literally numbered by God, and God is limitless in his care and in his person.

Christians fall victim to this thinking because the materialistic secular worldview is the air we breathe. C. S. Lewis said that everything in this life is marked by death. In A Grief Observed, Lewis talks about how his life was marked by the death of his wife.

“You tell me, “She goes on.” But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. . . . But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the love-making, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace. On any view whatever, to say “H. is dead,” is to say “All that is gone.” It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death.”

Lewis is talking about something he had grown to understand because of the love he had for his wife. That death is pervasive that death will eventually claim everything and everyone we love. The problem is not if we will die but when. This is not something you hear much about in our modern culture. We don’t want to admit that we are dying and the thing we love will all pass away. Death reminds us that this world is not our home that this world is not all that there is but we avoid death in the hope that death will avoid us.

Matt McCullough in Remember Death, points to the power of life over death. Death’s power has been destroyed and even had its hold turned back on itself because of the resurrection of Christ. McCullogh says, “Jesus draws our attention to the grave to break our attachment to foolish hope in false gods, but not to pull us back from joy. He would rather return the good things of life to their proper place in our minds and hearts: they are gifts, not gods.”

One of the best things you can do to your kids is to take them to funerals, take them to visit people in the hospital, and talk to them about the reality that one day you, as their parent, will die. We live in a culture that is so unprepared for the reality and eventually of death that they don’t know how to live. The church in North America doesn’t talk about death. As a result, far too many Christians are filled with fear of their deathbed. This is a fear that should not be for a Christian. We have a sure and certain hope. Because your days are numbered because you belong to God, we do not have to fear. Nothing can take us from this life until God says we are done. When God says we are done, nothing can keep us.

How to talk to your kids about death?

  1. Tell your kids the truth. – In the podcast I referenced earlier, Dr. Gibson does not lie to his son. He doesn’t give him false hope. He tells him the truth and points his son to God’s goodness. “What shape is the moon….always?”
  2. Don’t speak for God; point them to God – God is always good, but what he does will not always make sense to you and me. There are mysteries that we will never fully understand. Don’t tell your kids what God should have done. Point them to the Word and teach them to trust God more than their eyes can see. 
  3. Do not minimize difficulty or simplify God’s glory or majesty. It is easy and tempting to give our kids pat answers to difficult questions or too difficult problems. Point them to the majesty of God. Remind them of what Mr. and Mrs. Beaver told the Pevenacy kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe that God is not safe, but he is good. In trying to understand why people die and how people die, it’s important to remind ourselves that God isn’t safe, sin is real, but God is always good.
  4. Point them to the comforts of God and the assurances of scripture. – Another well-meaning but pernicious lie people tell kids after the death of a loved one is “God didn’t do this.” This may make them feel good for the time being but will inevitably produce insecurity, anxiety, and fear. If the devil’s ability to take life is more real than the power of God to preserve it, we are all in lots of trouble. In Deuteronomy 32:39, it says, “Now see that I, even I, am He, And there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” This should not cause anxiety but give us great comfort because nothing can take us from God hand.

How do we live lives marked by joy in our present moment and filled with hope for the future? We realize that this life is but a foretaste of the glory to come.

“Jesus’s death and resurrection have purchased freedom to enjoy what you have even when you know you’re going to lose it. Enjoy your vacation even though it’ll be over in a flash. Enjoy parenting your preschoolers even though they’ll be grown in the blink of an eye. Enjoy your friendships. Enjoy your marriage. Enjoy your productivity at work. Enjoy whatever health you have left in your body. Of course these things won’t last. Yes, it will hurt when they’re gone. But they don’t have to last to be wonderful. They are delicious, God-given, God-glorifying appetizers for the hearty and satisfying meal that’s still to come. They are true and worthy foretastes of the banquet spread for all peoples. And Jesus saves the best wine for last.”

Matt McCullough

Parents as Partners

Parents as Partners

I have been a part of the children’s ministry conversation for over 20 years. Several years ago, I was in a conversation with a few friends where we coined the term “Kidmin.” Initially, I saw the issues of parent involvement in the discipleship of their kids as an issue that was founded in children’s ministry leaders setting themselves as experts. Saying, in essence, “drop off your kids; we know what to do.” Like most things, we swung from one extreme to the other. We have gone from a kid pastor as discipleship expert to a kids pastor as cheerleader model. How we engage with parents needs to change.

We have all championed parents as primary in the discipleship process for the past several years. However, we need to move from that model. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, but it’s incomplete. It’s one thing to champion the message “Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids.” It’s a whole other thing to carry this out in a biblical, faithful way that leads to a lasting faith in kids. 

Much good has come from this message and focus! However, there have also been some unintended consequences. I think parents as primary in the discipleship of their children has produced a disengagement by church leaders in the discipleship process. It has also produced a lack of trust by those who lead in the church in the power and place of the church in the life of those we lead. 

Before he left, the charge from Christ was to make disciples; the vehicle he chose for that to take place was the church. This in no way is a diminishment of the family. Still, I believe it is an understanding that our families are not a substitute for the church. Our families are to be a reflection of the church and agents of the church. In Ephesians 5, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself for her. We in the church are to love each other as dear brothers and sisters. Our families should be like a little church, and our churches are to be like a little family. 

The church has never been more necessary than it is today. Many things have changed during the covid pandemic; one of those things that have changed is there has been more conversation around ecclesiology, what the church is, and what her role is. Going forward, we need to change our language and structures in how we talk and how we lead. 

Ever since George Barna wrote his book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, this idea and message of “parents are the primary disciple-makers of their kids” has been the prevailing narrative in children’s ministry. So as I type this following sentence, I do so in full awareness of just how much I’m going against the grain…but here it goes. 

We need to move away from language and actions that say parents are primary and move to parents as partners. Now let’s unpack this a bit. 

What do Parents as Partners Look Like? 

  1. Parents as partners is not us supplying resources and parents doing the work. It is us as a church discipling the parents and us as a church discipling kids and parents. Then, parents take what they have seen and experienced and, in turn, disciplining kids at home. 
  2. Parents as partners know the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit as primary and our work in home and church as equally necessary. 
  3. Parents as partners see the goal as helping kids live lives of obedience and imitation of Christ, not simply the outward manifestation of good or moral behavior. What does that look like? Eugene Peterson would call it “A long obedience in the same direction.” Bill Hull would say that “Discipleship occurs when someone answers the call to learn from Jesus and others how to live his or her life as though Jesus were living it. As a result, the disciple becomes the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus did.” 
  4. Parents as partners mean we have a shared goal and a shared vision of whom their kids are becoming. Parents as primary leaves parents to decide what is the summum bonum or greatest good for their child. It has led in many ways to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle idolatry of the family. 

What needs to change? 

We need to change our church culture. We must help parents see that the church is our family, that God is our father and that we living in community through intentional relationships will become the kinds of people who naturally do what Jesus did. 

Our language needs to change. Christ is primary, and we are secondary. Church (the Bride of Christ…which families are a part of) is our primary family. Our families should be a living example of parents and kids walking long obedience in the same direction. The goal of our families is not happiness in this life but to point to a greater reality. Our families are a good gift that we are to enjoy and that form us into the image of Christ, but they are not the substance.  

The chief good and the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As a church, we must model this for our parents and kids so that we together may become the kind of people who naturally do what Jesus did. 

The Impact a Bible Can Have

It has been almost two decades since my grandfather died. He was elderly, but his death was sudden. I remember getting the call and, somewhat stunned disbelief made the journey back to the family farm for his funeral. Many emotions accompanied that trip, but of all the things that stood out to me, what I remember most was his Bible. I remember wandering through his house, looking at all the things that reminded me of the summers I spent there as a child. I knew that his passing would change our family in ways I would miss. 

I remember sitting in his favorite chair, and right next to it was his Bible, whose leather cover looked much like the worn leather of old farmer hands. I picked up his Bible. Inside was his daily devotional that he had read neatly tucked into the book of the Bible that his devotional directed him to read that particular day. As I look back on almost twenty years of missing him, what I remember most was the Bible he read and the way he would fold his hands and belt out “How Great Thou Art.” 

The reality is that one day I won’t be here anymore. I will be absent in body but present with Christ. How do I want to be remembered by my grandkids? What do I want them to think of when they think of me? I hope that my life will be small, and He to whom I point will be large. A few years ago, my Grandfather’s Bible inspired me to leave my kids each a Bible of their own filled with notes and thoughts I had based on the passage I read each day. I do this for three years for each of them and will give it to them when they graduate from High School. I usually read in front of them as they eat breakfast. I want them to see me read the Bible and then one day read what I was saying to them all those years ago. I pray it will be a reminder of the supremacy of Scripture above all else. 

So far, I have partnered with several publishers, most recently working with PersonalizedBibles.com. They have a large selection of high-quality Bibles that you can add the name of your child or favorite passage of Scripture to the front. These Bibles would be great for graduations, baptisms, or the traditional first Bible. 

Personalized Bibles gave me a leather journaling Bible that I will be journaling in for my oldest daughter. The leather is beautiful, and the craftsmanship is excellent. Her name is engraved beautifully on the front. I would highly recommend you take a look at the Bibles they offer.

Christmas is coming up, and there is no greater gift you can give your kids than a Bible. Make sure you buy the right Bible for your child’s age. One mistake many parents make is buying a Bible that is too young for their child.