Don’t Burn Bridges.

Remember when Facebook was for sharing photos of your children and videos of otters holding hands? Me neither. Social media has become a battlefield of conflicting ideas. A minefield of potentially explosive issues. It has gone from a digital scrapbook to a digital equivalent of a dual. Every post seems to be about the defense of a person or idea and with those who disagree hurling horribly generalized caricatures of who they think you are based on what party they think you are a part of.

As Christians, we have to guard against this. Some of the most scathing reprimands of scripture are towards those who can not control their tongues. In James 1 where we famously quote the passage that states “True religion is taking care of the widows and orphans.” This is a feel-good statement that is completely true and we love it. You know what it says in the verse right in front of it. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle (control) his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Every sin that we commit is first a sin of the heart and second a sin of our mouth before it is a sin of our actions. Therefore what we think about, what we desire affects what we say. How we speak and what we type is a pretty good indication of the state of our heart.

Here is the bad news. None of us do this. Why because the Bible tells us our heart is desperately wicked. Kierkegaard called this the crooked timber of the heart. Our words will not change until our hearts have been transformed.

A preacher I respect greatly said this: “[James] calls for us to have a tamed tongue. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re a Christian. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re walking in obedience. And as you look at your life, beloved, if you see those things coming out of your mouth that ought not to come, you need to confess it as sin and turn from it. And how you react to those times when bitter water comes out of the sweet fountain is the key to your spiritual strength, the key to your spiritual effect and power.”

Our speech will not change until our hearts are transformed here is the good news. That is what God does best. He takes our hearts of stone and gives us a new heart with new desires and new words. Will we still slip in our speech online and offline? Yes. Should we strive to grow in the grace that God provides and be more kind in what we say think and do? Yes. This is a work God does and we join with him growing in his likeness day by day.

Here are a few things I am trying to do better when engaging people online.

  1. Ask more questions and make fewer statements – Look to learn not only prove a point.
  2. Delete more comments than you publish – If you know me, you would say there is no way you do this I have read what you have published online. I delete A LOT of comments, and so should you.
  3. Clarify when you don’t understand don’t assume you understand – This is essential offline as well as online. Communication doesn’t happen when two people speak. It occurs when two people speak, and there is understanding.
  4. If you know the person in real life call or text them to have an honest conversation about something you don’t understand – Use online disagreement to build bridges, not burn them. Talking in person builds bridges torching someone’s wall burns bridges.
  5. Take regular breaks from social media – I regularly take breaks to keep from becoming an angry, anxious, annoying person. You need to take more breaks than you do.
  6. Try to verify if a story is true before you share it – This is becoming more and more difficult to do even some fact-checking sites have become politicized. Try to use original sources, give away credit, and use common sense. If a story sounds like something, your craziest friends often say it’s probably not true.
  7. Try and stay friends with people who think differently than you. The mute button may be your friend at times, so use it. – Try not to burn bridges. Sometimes you will have to mute people online so you can stay friends offline, and that’s ok. Offline friends are more important than online friends.
  8. Know when to walk away, know when to run – Sometimes comments get ugly fast. Don’t go there. Walk away.
  9. When you overstep, and you will apologize without expecting them to apologize in return – If you only follow one of these pointers, let it be this one. I had to use it this week. I had to text a friend and apologize for what I said it was too strong and didn’t convey what I wanted to say because it was not seasoned with grace.

We all need God’s help to control our speech so that our thoughts, words, and actions convey the grace that is ours in Christ. What you say and what you type will signal to a watching world a heart that has been transformed by grace. May this be more and more true of us every day.

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.

Is it True?

We live in a world that is hyper-political and completely tribal. As I type this, there is now a mask-wearing tribe and “non-maskers.” We have successfully politicized public health and a worldwide pandemic. We also live a world that values experience over and above objective truth. Truth is relative, and experience is authoritative.

We have a generation that is ruled by their emotional response to any given situation, yet they have failed to stop and ask, “Is this true?” Truth is not relative; there is objective truth. As Christians, we believe that objective truth is the Word of God. We have to teach our kids to check their ideas, information, and presuppositions against what the Bible tells us the truth is. We do this by pointing them back to scripture over and over again. We do this by personally showing them how we filter our political, moral, and spiritual decisions based on what the Bible says over what someone tells us we should say or do as an “Evangelical Chrisitan.”

Clarifying for our kids what is true will help them properly filter information that they are given or come across on their own. If they are not clear on what is true, they will believe a lie. If they don’t have an external filter for the truth, they will believe things about God and themselves that aren’t true.

The next thing we have to do is confront your child’s emotions with truth. Often times our kids will be upset because another kid or a sibling said something that was hurtful. The first question I ask is “Is it true?” They usually say no. I then say then don’t worry about it. With the emotional tripwires exposed we then discuss why they said what they said and how we can be a better friend or sibling as a result.

Our kids are growing up in a world where “lived experience” is how “truth” is established. The problem with our experiences is that divorced from objective external truth they become tyrannical and subjective. Our experience is meant to reveal our sinful hearts and our need for a savior not to justify our own sinful responses to those who have hurt us.

Our experiences are meaningful and diverse but they are not authoritative. It is only when those experiences are filtered through truth outside of us that they are properly understood.

Lastly, as we are holding fast to the truth as seen in the Word of God but do so with humility. We have to listen to others before we speak. Raw truth devoid of charity is rarely transformative. We need to model to our kids how to interact with and pray for those with whom we disagree. We live in a world that will cancel you for the slightest infractions of social norms. We as Christians must forgive and model forgiveness not because of our experience alone. We have experienced forgiveness but because the objective Word of God demands it. If you do not forgive you will not be forgiven.

KB recently on his Instastory said it better than I can.

This is the church.
We will rebuke you when you are wrong.
We will forgive you when you repent.
But we will not cancel you when you are down…for Christ did not cancel us.

Cancel culture is not kingdom culture. We don’t just applaud the righteous we restore the fallen.

KB

Why is what KB saying true? Because of the lived experience of all truth in the son of God made a way for us to be reconciled to God and restored to each other. That is the truth our kids need every day. We can be restored to one another because we have been reconciled by God. May we live our lives in light of that truth for our Good and God’s glory.

Resources On Understanding Issues of Race

Growing up in Norwegian middle America without television, I don’t remember even see a personal of color until I was around 11 years old. I was always a reader and always loved history I read about the awful treatment of persons of color in our country. It broke my heat then it breaks my heart still.

Coming to a greater realization of race being a broader issue rather than only a personal one has been and continues to be a journey. One that we all need to be on together.

I enjoy social media (most of the time). For me, it’s more of a hobby and a way to hear what’s happening in the world without having to watch the news (something I never do). I have learned over the past twelve years to take social media with a grain of salt and extend grace to those on it because we don’t always say things the right way. I prefer long-form content like blog posts and books. I enjoy reading, and the journey I have been on to see the world through someone else’s eyes has been a long, meandering unexpected journey. It has taught me as most good books do that I have much to learn.

The first book I read on race was the story of William Wilberforce and his fight to abolish the slave trade. It was that book that leads me to read the theology and biographies of John Newton. John’s story is a wild story of a young man who grew up with slaves, became enslaved himself, came to faith, and then became a slave ship captain as a Christian. He eventually became the catalyst for the abolition of the slave trade in England and the West Indies.

The next book that came across my path was a result of a personal curiosity with why people of color refer to other people of color as “Uncle Toms.” I have my children read classic works of literature over the summers so two years ago I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin with my oldest boy. I cried through much of it and marveled at the faith and Christ-likeness of many of the African characters.

As a result of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I resolved to start reading more books about people of color written by persons of color. I have done this for a while with female authors but decided to start reading books about how our country has treated Africans and African Americans through their eyes.

I will be honest It has not been easy. There is so much growing up in a sea of white that I missed. There is so much that I didn’t see not because I closed my eyes but because I turned my head.

The books I am looking to read are ones that are truth-telling and redemptive. This doesn’t mean that the ink spilled on the pages of books doesn’t accurately describe the horrors of the blood that cries out from the ground against our country. The difference is what is the worldview of the author what is their teleological framework.

I started with The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jamar Tisby. I love the church. I’ve worked at the same church for 23 years. This book was hard to read. To read how so many of my brothers have been tortured and killed in the name of God is not a light subject but is necessary. We can’t heal what we don’t name. Racism is not just evil its a sin.

I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. I listen to all his podcasts and have read every one of his books and always read his new book as soon as it comes out. In God’s providence, Malcolm’s new book was Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (I recommend the Audiobook version). In this book, Gladwell talks about the issue of race and sexual abuse that were hard to hear. The story he tells of Sandra Bland it is gut-wrenching. Gladwell has a way of communicating that connects with how I learn. What he has to say in this book profoundly stuck me.

As I read each of these books, I was moved to tears, and I am not a book crier. I was moved because I realized what I did with the issue of race was turn my head. I did what I do with all the sad things I know they are real but pretend they aren’t true. I used to tell myself that people who had died were still alive somewhere in the world because I couldn’t bear to deal with the loss. In God’s good providence, this unhealthy way of dealing with pain is beginning to change in my life. In the past several years, I have encountered difficult circumstances that have forced me to re-evaluate what I think when I think of God.

I have come to see that I need his mercy more than ever. In times of difficulty and sorrow, I need a picture of what God is like. I need to be reminded as Paul reminded the church at Philippi

Philippians 2:5-8
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

May we grow in the grace God provides. May we love each other as Christ has loved us. May we like Christ never use our influence for our own advantage.

I haven’t read these books but they are next on my list of books to read.

The Warmth of Other Suns
Under Our Skin
United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity

Should I Cancel VBS Because of COVID?

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

Why Does VBS Still Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

What are My Options for VBS During COVID?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Plea to You as a Pastor or Ministry Leader.

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

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

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

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