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.

4 Actions Family Ministry Leaders Should Avoid During the COVID Crisis.

This is my twenty-second year of doing kids and youth ministry and it is like none other I have experienced so far. It seems that we are all, no matter how long you have been doing ministry, trying to find our footing. It seems each day brings new realities to adjust to. The church has done much better than I could have imagined. It’s so exciting to see pastors and leaders innovate and create in ways they never thought they could have as a result of the COVID crisis.

We are only a couple of weeks into this and here are some of the things I believe we need to avoid as ministry leaders in the midst of a crisis like no other we have faced. It is so great to see the church rise to meet the unique challenges we are facing now. Yet I think we meet those challenges with both wisdom and prayer.

Here are a few suggestions I have about things we are avoiding in our kids and youth ministries during the COVID crisis.

1. Don’t talk about fear each week

This can be a huge challenge because it is low hanging fruit. For teens but especially kids, they need to be reminded of who God is. This is the greatest tool to fight any fears they may have.

I remember when my kids were little when they fell down and skinned their knees we would pick them up brush them off and tell them they were going to be fine. Their reaction was much different than when we made a big deal out of their bobo. Kids are connected and consume media first and second hand like no other generation before them. Rather than address it in our videos skits and stories we need to empower parents and caregivers so they will be able to help their kids better than us trying to comfort kids through a screen. Teach parents simple things to say. Give parents resources to say those things. Find or produce resources for parents to talk about fear with their kids but lets as the church keep disciplining kids as you normally do.

2. Don’t show curriculum videos unless you have no option

I’m not anti-curriculum. There are so many great options. I wrote an ebook to help you decide which curriculum is right for your church. But in this unique time we are in, kids need to see familiar faces. They need to see the church being the church to them.

Given the pervasiveness of editing software and the amount of free time, you or some youth or college kid has now. You should be able to produce something that is decent. It just has to be good because it is you. Kids want to see you not some stranger. Don’t sacrifice comfort for your kids of seeing you and your team because you feel it won’t be excellent. The American church has bought into the CEO lie that everything we do has to be Disney or it is not worth doing. Kids would trade excellent for human, personal, and normal any day. Kids don’t remember the amazing vacation you took them on what they do remember is the fort you built them out of cardboard. Excellence is a good goal but a bad god.

3. Don’t just disseminate content

The easier thing to do right now is to go on Facebook Live to make videos on YouTube. Those platforms have their usefulness to be sure. But don’t fall into the trap that you are pastoring someone because you are making videos about God. Pastors find a way to show up personally. In the times we are now living through may require some creativity it may require old school methods like making phone calls, sending texts or cards it may even some creative new school ways through zoom or by playing video games with kids.

I met with our volunteers and asked them to still volunteer. We ask them to call or send notes to their kids on the weeks they serve. I can’t reach all of our kids myself but we can as a family, if we all do our part we can together.

4. Don’t go back to the way things were

This crisis will change our world, is changing the church and must change us. If we think we can go back to business, as usual, we are wrong. We need to be more digital and more personal than ever. How are you going to do that? We need to start to create virtual ways to bring kids into our actual doors. We need to think of ways to leave our studios and walk through their actual doors.

If we don’t change how we work, who we trust, how we pray. We will have waisted this crisis. We can’t waste this crisis.

The bad news is we won’t be back for several weeks. The good news is we have several weeks to figure out what our new normal of reaching kids and teens is going to look like. Let’s work together to build the church. Let’s push each other to be more like Christ.

Should I Let My Teenager Date?

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was right in the middle of the Evangelical whiplash cultural course correction following the social revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. This produced youth ministries at the time serving up a steady diet of Hells Bells and True Love Waits.

Purity Rings and True Love Waits

It seemed, growing up in that era, that the great enemies of the Evangelical church were Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. Drugs and Rock and Roll were solved by creating a subculture of Christian Music. Sex was addressed by creating the purity culture. The goal was good, but the application of that goal I think was very harmful. Wanting kids to live Holy lives is a good thing. Kids need to understand the importance of Sanctification in the Christian life. The way in which it was taught was not helpful to kids or the church as a whole.

I’m talking about youth meetings where a youth pastor chewed a piece of gum and then offered it to someone else to chew. Of course, they would refuse. They’d then pull out a rose and tell the boys to pass it around while they talked about keeping yourself for marriage. At the end they would ask for the rose back. It was bent and broken. The youth pastor would say, “nobody wants something that is used.” Once a youth pastor said, “If you kiss a girl who you don’t marry you are kissing another man’s wife.” The church in the ’90s in its fear of sexual revolution created a sexual revolution of its own.

The problem is not the calling out the misappropriate use of Sex and Rock and Roll from the generation before them. The problem was trying to fix hearts and broken culture with only rules. “This beat is sinful,” and, “No one wants used things,” both come from a human perspective of trying to keep kids away from something. Rather, they could have challenged them to live for something, painting a picture of a God who redeems broken things.

Should my kid…

Should my kid date? I say yes. In the high school years, kids are learning the basic tools for life, hopefully with the guidance of a loving adult. My advice, which goes against the grain of the ’90s purity culture, is for your kids to have many meaningful friendships with members of the opposite sex. The advent of technology has isolated our kids and taught them that real friendships consist of likers of their airbrushed photos. Friendship is a dying art in need of revitalization. Lewis in his book The Four Loves says:

“To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

I am convinced that our kids need to learn the art of friend-making and friend-keeping. They need to learn to have a conversation, with someone of the opposite sex, because should they get married they will need to be talking to their spouse daily. The time in high school should not be dominated by serious exclusive relationships but should be a time, where with the help of loving adults, our kids learn how to be good friends.

Kids need to learn how to have face to face conversation that isn’t awkward with the opposite sex. They need to learn what types of texting is appropriate. They need to learn how to treat people that they are attracted to and how to treat people that they aren’t attracted to. How can this happen if the boys sit on one side of the room and the girls on the other? I don’t believe the path to marriage starts though sexual attraction. I think it begins through meaningful friendships.

Friendship with others starts with understanding whose we are.

I dated several women before I married my wife, Sandra. None of those relationships detracted from my relationship with Sandra. They clarified for me who I was looking for and what I found in my wife. The problems in the single dating culture in the church aren’t solved with a lowering of standards, they’re resolved by asking the right questions and starting in the right place. We are asking, “should we date,” –  the question should be, “are my relationships God-honoring or self-gratifying?” We should not ask, “How far can I go and still be ‘pure’ as a Christian,” but rather, “To whom do I belong.”

The problem with the purity culture of the ’90s was not the concern of a hypersexualized culture. The problem was that the starting point and goal were not God. When man is the starting point and imperatives of our sermons being a used piece of gum or bent flower, you end up with crazy weird applications of truth. You got off course. When you start with God and understand that you belong to him, you are free to have meaningful friendships. Suddenly, you see others as image bearers, rather than objects which have been created by a loving God to reveal to you his mercy and grace, much of which can only be experienced in the gift of friendship.

I remember hearing years later Matt Chandler preach a message about that rose: that no one wants because it was broken and used. He ends the video with poignant finality, “Jesus wants the rose. That’s the point of the Gospel!” This is what the purity movement missed in their desire to protect kids from harm. It missed the gospel. Such a powerful message of our God who redeems. Jesus wants the rose.

Are you a Preacher Who Pastors or a Pastor who Preaches.

One of the temptations in ministry but particularly in youth ministry is to be a preacher who pastors. Pastoral ministry is tough there is no way around it, it just is. Preaching is generally immediately rewarding with people telling you that you did a great job or how what you said impacted them positively. Pastoring generally results in very few positive short-term results. Pastoring people is getting down into the middle messes and walking people through dark valleys. It isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t get lots of likes on Instagram.  Pastoring is the necessary hard spirit transforming work of leading your people to a long obedience in the same direction.

The problem is that we like instant feedback we like being told of our impact, so the temptation is for us to become preachers who pastor on the side. If we only ever look at pastoring as the necessary evil that allows us to preach, we have missed what it means to be a shepherd of Christ’s flock. When youth Pastors see what they do as a means to get more people there to heart them preach they have missed the point and have failed to have a broader understanding of what Pastoral Care looks like in the Bible.

We need to change our paradigm of discipleship. Preaching is a powerful means of discipleship, but if those we are training and leading only see us on stage they will fail to understand how that message is formed in years of pain and tears and think that standing on the stage in front of kids as what the Greeks called “Summum bonum” the highest good. Jesus confronted this in his disciples through his radical call to authentic discipleship. Do you want to be great? Yes? Be the least. (Matthew 20) Do you want to follow me? You can’t if you love anything. Anything. Including the good things, he gives us more than God himself (Luke 14). Jesus modeled a life a self-sacrificial love showing us what the highest good actually is.

One of the greatest temptations in ministry is to find value in the wrong things. To find our identity in what we do rather than whose we are. Not in the fact we can preach really well or if we can gather a crowd or if our Instagram photo of us preaching gets enough likes, or by getting good feedback on our facebook page after we preach. Our job is not to preach a tweetable message but to proclaim the fullness of God’s word to a generation who doesn’t want to hear the gospel.

What I have found in over twenty years of ministry in the same church is that even my best sermons are forgettable, but the moments I loved those who are the least of these those moments were never forgotten. Pastoring is showing up to pray for an 8-year-old boy in the hospital about to get his tonsils taken out and is scared. It’s walking into the room where a family is gathered because their dad just when home to Glory. It’s sitting in a living room telling a family that even though their dad left them that Jesus isn’t like that. Those moments are when you better be ready to know when to speak the hope the gospel provides and when to be quiet and weep with those who weep. It is in those moments of pastoral care that your life connects the dots preaching creates. Young pastor be a pastor who preaches not a preacher who pastors.