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.

Pastor PreachersNSneakers Should Concern You.

If you aren’t up on the latest Christian buzz there is a new site called PreachersnSneakers . It is a site calling out preachers for having expensive shoes and clothing items. It started off as a “funny” site and has clearly hit a cultural nerve gaining 60k followers on Instagram in four days.

As funny and as crass as some of the comments are, I think the content of the posts and the content of the comments are very telling and are deserving of more than a cheap laugh. I think the problem we have to ask ourselves as those who are a part of the evangelical world is – In our desire to relate to the world and connect with lost people has our message has been lost? When you are so immeshed in the images and artifacts of culture that you are inseparable from culture your message will always either be dismissed as hypocrisy or changed into another gospel.

Sites like this should make all Christians and especially Christian leaders look at their lives and ask themselves is there anything I am doing that is a hindrance to the gospel of Christ? What we as leaders must guard against is the pride of own hearts that says I would never dress like that or spend that kind of money on shoes. We must also be aware of who we are portraying ourselves to be online. Are we as leaders pointing people to Christ or drawing them to ourselves? Are we unintentionally stirring up in those who follow us the sin of envy?

A famous preacher once said that the dress and style of a pastor should be forgettable so that what you remember is his message, not his clothing. Any Christian minister that upstages the gospel in their methods or lifestyle needs to repent. I think a good guideline for every preacher is to avoid poverty and opulence so that what you say matters more than what you look like.

Why does some Celebraty pastor wearing 5,500.00 sneakers concern me? Because even if you do not wear such things you can be guilty of pride or envy. Pride because you feel that you are better than the person who is wearing expensive things and you do not. The other half of the population wishes they had these items for themselves, the sin of envy. So even if you were gifted items that are very expensive by people who hope you wear them so other people can see and desire them, should you? I don’t think you should. Not because the gospel is opposed to nice things, it isn’t, it views everything we have as a gracious gift. The gospel should make you more aware of inflaming the passions in others tha can not be fulfilled without sin.

One of the greatest problem with expensive and even good things flaunted on Instagram is what it does to the hearts of those who are weaker and are prone to the sin of envy (which is all of us by the way). In The Rule of Love J.V. Fesko says this about the tenth commandment.

The tenth commandment has much to say about motives. In this regard, it is a unique commandment, for few cultures have laws that govern motives. Recognizing that the tenth commandment targets heart motives helps us to see that Christ was not raising the demands of the law in His Sermon on the Mount. Rather, by connecting the demands of the tenth commandment to the rest of the Law, Christ revealed that merely dealing with external behavior was not enough; the Law also dealt with motives of the heart. That is because violating the tenth commandment is often the gateway to violating the rest of the Law.

 J. V. Fesko, The Rule of Love: Broken, Fulfilled, and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 125.

Can you have nice things without nice things having you? I think you can. There are those who with pride say Christians shouldn’t have nice things I don’t think that’s true at all. The problem comes when you are defined by your things more than who you are in Christ. When you have to have certain things because of the crowd you run with. When you think that things and stuff, rather than the fruit of repentance, define your acceptance before God. As Piper famously said, “No one says Jesus is all satisfying because you drive a BMW” or wear Gucci. They say “Did Jesus give you that? I’ll take Jesus.” When we confuse giver and gift we proclaim to a watching world another gospel. Jesus plus nice things equal God’s acceptance. When we properly understand every good and perfect gift I have comes from God and I am a steward of the things he gives me for the glory of God. Stewards are aware of their master’s desire and design, owners are only concerned with their own desires. Servants want to please their master, owners feel they deserve what they have worked hard for. Stewards view what they have as gracious gifts, owners view what they have as entitlements they have earned. The gospel is not opposed to effort it is however opposed to earning.

Let us strive to guard our hearts from the sin of pride in our right judgments of fellow Christians. Let us also protect others as much as we are able from the sin of envy.

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.

Happy Reformation Day – Semper Reformanda

Why we still need reformation.

One of the mottos of the Reformation was Semper Reformanda which means “the church reformed, always reforming” With the strength of the Evangelical Protestant Church this seems like an antiquated motto for the Protestant church in its infancy.

However, as we celebrate 501 years of the Protestant Reformation, we are still a church in need of reformation as much from within Protestantism as we are from without. Recently I got into a conversation with several youth pastors from around the country, and the conversation was centered around the question of baptism. The question was posed if we should baptize someone who is currently living with someone in an unmarried relationship. 60% of the people who answered the question said they would baptize someone who is living with a partner. Various responses included “Who am I to judge” “There is no prerequisite in the Bible for baptism.” “Nobody is perfect” “#JesusWould” But would He?

In conversations like these, I am reminded how much Youth Ministry in America needs Reformation. I am reminded of how culture has out catechized our youth, and personal ideology permeated our seminaries. We need a reformation that shakes the foundation of our faith one that places the trust and dependence where it always should have been on Christ alone. One of the things I find helpful in the turbulent mishmash of progressive Christianity and Post Modernity is to look back at old things.