Three reasons you think you shouldn’t serve in your church’s kids ministry

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Whether your church calls it family ministry, children’s ministry, kids ministry… whatever it’s called, here are three reasons people often give for why they shouldn’t serve in a ministry that involves children. I propose these three reasons are exactly why you should sign up this Sunday to serve in your church’s ministry to the next generation.

Because You Aren’t a Kid Person

I hear this a lot. As a kids ministry leader at my church, I often hear people say they aren’t kid people. That’s why they don’t serve in kids ministry. And to a point there’s good reasoning there.

Not everyone is suited for holding babies, singing Jesus Loves Me with toddlers, and teaching elementary students to discern Jesus from the Bible lesson. In fact, there are some really good reasons a person should have no contact with kids in church. But just because you don’t feel all warm and fuzzy when kids are around, and you don’t talk to babies like you’re in a cartoon, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t serve in your church’s ministry to the next generation.

In fact, if you are quick to say, “I’m not a kid person,” you should sign up to serve in kids ministry. Let God take that aversion you have to kids and the chaos they may make you feel, and use it to lower yourself and listen to Jesus say, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

If you’re not a kid person, you don’t have to be the lead teacher or the one who guides the toddlers in a game of follow the leader. But get on the ground next to a kid playing with the Noah’s ark play set. Let God use those kids to show you how much he loves and accepts you as you are, and is leading you to grow up to be like Jesus.

Because You Work With Kids All Day Long

A reason many give for not serving in a ministry to children is that they work with kids every day during the week. They don’t want to work with kids at church too.

Teachers, daycare workers, preschool aides… you all are the pros! Your church’s kids ministry needs you to help them learn how to manage a classroom. We need your skills!

In Exodus 35, when Moses called the people of Israel to build the tabernacle as God instructed, he called for people with different skills to use their abilities not just for their own homes, but for the house God was having them build.

Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the LORD has commanded… All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair… ‘See the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Juday; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship…” Exodus 35:10, 26, 30-31

Jesus is building his church. And one way he does that is by calling people with different abilities in the church to serve one another using those skills. There’s an ability needed to guide a group of kids to listen and learn together. If you have that skill, sign up this Sunday to serve in your church’s ministry to the next generation. Build Jesus’ kingdom with your classroom management talents.

Because You’re Retired

In 2017, John Piper spoke to a group of college students at Grand Canyon University. The title of his speech, “Better to Lose Your Life Than Waste It.”

Towards the end of his message, Piper responds to Paul’s desire to go to Jerusalem in Acts 20:22, as a fictional American trying to talk some sense into the elderly apostle:

But Paul, you’re getting old. How ’bout a little cottage on the Aegean Sea? You’ve already done more in your ministry than most people could do in five lifetimes. It’s time to rest. Let the last twenty years of your life be travel and golf, shuffleboard and putzing around the garage and digging in the garden. Let Timothy have a chance. He’s young. Don’t go to Jerusalem. Agabus the prophet has told you, they are going to bind your hands and feet and hand you over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). And whatever you do, don’t go to Rome. And get out of your head the crazy plan of going to Spain at your age. You could get yourself killed. It isn’t American! It’s not the American Dream of ‘the sunset years.

The point of Piper’s message is old age in Jesus’ church isn’t a reason for sitting back and relaxing while younger folks do the work of the ministry. And it isn’t just John Piper preaching this message. In the Bible the psalmist pleads with God to give him a ministry even when he’s old, “So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psalm 71:18)

And in Joshua 14:6-15, when 85 year old Caleb finally enters the land God promised Israel, he tells Joshua, “And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”

Not every person of retirement age can get down on the ground with toddlers, but if you’re a retiree and you can enter a church building, this Sunday you should sign up to serve the next generation of parents and children in your church.

It’s FUN!

Ok, that’s four, and it’s not a reason people give for not wanting to serve in a ministry to children. But I think it’s a reason many of us serious folks might unconsciously use as a reason we avoid kids ministry.

I tend to be too serious. In fact, it’s a prayer of mine this year that I will laugh more. I know that’s pathetic, but its true. Serving in kids ministry has caused me to laugh and have fun even while the hard things of life happen around us.

Proverbs 31 speaks of the woman who is clothed with strength and dignity. She opens her mouth and teaches others with kindness and wisdom. And she laughs at the time to come.

When you lower yourself to sit criss-cross and sing Jesus Loves Me with toddlers; when you learn to teach Jesus to a child, you will grow in strength and dignity and you’ll find yourself having the best kind of fun. You’ll laugh with a pure heart and it will be good!

I pray this stirs your heart. I pray if you’re not a kid person, and if you’re a teacher person or a retired person, you will turn your reasons for not serving the children and parents in your church into the reasons you sign up to serve them on Sunday.

Words, walls, and the winning way of Jesus

In the days after the November 3rd election, I scrolled through my Twitter and Facebook feeds, reading posts from people with crosses, fish symbols and scripture references in their taglines, that left me grieved.

They used words like, “go to hell,” held up their Bibles, guns, favored-candidate’s flag, and accused other Christians on social media of being “baby-killers” and “lost” because they pledged to pray for a pro-choice democrat if elected. In response I tweeted this question:

“Christian, if you’re cutting people off, calling them names, mocking and slandering them, how exactly are you loving your enemies?”

But simply sub-tweeting a pained reply to what I read on social media isn’t going to make the difference I long to see.

One of the writers I follow on Twitter, recently said:

It’s easier to write a book about a subject than to live the subject in a low, slow, & consistent way. If we think we’ll make a bigger difference in the world thru publishing our message than by simply living our message, God will (hopefully tenderly, softly, kindly) correct us.” – @lorewilbert

Social media and the internet make it easy for anyone to write anything. But as Lore points out, living the words we publish in a, “…low, slow & consistent way,” is the real world-changer. The incarnation of our words is a demonstration of power. To persuade a group of people to like what you say or repeat what you say is a kind of power. But to take the words you say and live them out changes lives.

It was easy for me to post my subtweet response on Facebook. It will be much harder, and much more an evidence of the power of Christ in me when I love the people who post such things, the same way Christ has loved me.

I’m convicted that Christians are called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), do good to them (Luke 6:27), pray for them (Matthew 5:44), go above and beyond to show them unearned kindness (Matthew 5:40-42) give to them (Romans 12:10), speak words of grace (Collosians 4:6) and truth with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:14-16).

It feels weird to say it, but my “enemies” are people who use mean words on social media to demonize people they don’t agree with. Living out what I wrote, “low and slow” means praying for those people. Taking actual time out of my day to move my lips and complain to God, not social media, seeking mercy on their behalf just as I have been shown great mercy from Jesus. And if possible, meeting with them personally to humbly listen and share the truth and grace of Jesus.

Jesus is clear. The way he has prescribed and empowered us to follow him is from a humble, gentle, yet bold posture. A posture that doesn’t use words to tear people down or prop yourself up. The way commanded to us is a way of wisdom, self-control and gracious speech. But, is there a time for Christians to mock or use name calling?

In the Bible, Jesus called the religious leaders who tied heavy burdens on their followers and used them for financial gain a, “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23).

In the Bible, Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27) in an ancient showdown.

These examples make us stand up and cheer! We latch on easily to the person with the wittiest comebacks and sharpest jabs. We hear meek Jesus put those Pharisees on blast, and Elijah drop the mic on the prophets of Baal, and we arm ourselves Biblical support for mocking and name calling.

I doubt that any of us can, with a pure heart, call another people group a degrading name, or make fun of another religion’s gods, in a way that fulfills Christ’s commission to make disciples. But even if there are times when such shocking words are spoken with humility and boldness, these biblical examples don’t prescribe a mode of operation for Christians.

If our mode of operation as Christians turns from the humble, bold way of Jesus, to the in-your-face, mocking, proud, name-calling way of the culture and wayward leaders, I fear we will offend our neighbors and enemies and wall ourselves in tight from all opposing views so well, we will lose the chance to win them to Christ.

A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, And contentions are like the bars of a castle. – Proverbs 18:19

What’s your hope?

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Despair. That’s the word that comes to mind when I hear the news stories of late.

This morning, while I was getting ready to go to church, my husband sat at the kitchen table shaking his head. The news story about the two L.A. police officers, shot while they sat in their police car was on his news feed. “This is just disgusting! What is the world coming to!” he moaned.

My husband doesn’t yet hope in Jesus. I’ll spend my life praying, believing and living so that one day he will. Today, it was apparent to me, knowing where your hope lies is so important.

I asked my husband, “What’s your hope?” He struggled to voice a solution he thought might fix the problem of violence against police officers and the rhetoric he sees playing out in the public that makes it seem he’s the bad guy for being a police officer. His hope is that someone will someday fix this societal problem of violence and hate. He sees the bad guys, and hopes someone will stop them. The question that looms is, who’s going to fix the problem of evil?

What is my hope? A politician? Philanthropy? More police? Stricter laws? A different governmental system? Who’s going to fix this mess we’re all in?

When I voiced my hope to my husband this morning I got a bit of what the apostles got in Acts 4 when the leaders around them were, “…greatly annoyed because they were… proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” (Acts 4:2). My husband wasn’t greatly annoyed. But he was a little annoyed. “I don’t buy it!” he quipped. “I don’t think Christ is going to change these thugs’ and make them good people.” He couldn’t believe that Christ could make life-giving good people out of murders. And I get it. I don’t want Christ to make them life-giving good people. I tend to want Christ to just destroy them! I have a Jonah problem. But that’s another blog.

What my husband was annoyed at is my hope that the resurrected Jesus I believe in, who can’t be seen and touched, can make any difference in the world. And that’s just it. I believe he does, and is and will.

Right now, he’s in me and many others, moving us with his heart of perfect love and justice to self-sacrificially love others, forgive, stand up for the truth, for those who are oppressed, extending our lives and the good news that this Jesus we love is the only one who really can make all things new.

It’s good for us to use the systems we have to do as much good as we can, but ultimately, it is only Jesus who can take a dead, evil-infested heart, and make it alive with love and truth.

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Christians- get close. Stop idolizing and breaking others. Start serving them.

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On May 27th,  the New York Times published the 100,000 names of people who died from Coronavirus.  If you scroll down the screen of the online piece, you’ll see the images of humans scattered sparsley at first, then densly as time moves forward. Next to many of these human icons you’ll read the name, age and something specific about that person- their occupation, hobby or passion.  The response intended from such a piece is sobriety and grief. Maybe if you read the names you’ll stop living with this intoxicated view that everything is fine. Maybe you’ll even feel sad that so many have lost their lives to this disease. When I first read the article I remember feeling sober and sad. But I also had questions. What would we do if we knew the 100,000? What if we knew the wrong they’ve done? Would we honor them like Jesus honors the undeserving? Would we do the vulnerable work of discipleship?

In my work as a nurse, and before that as a nurse’s aide, I’ve cared for people whose family members disowned them. Some had been abusive. Some were addicts. Some had abandoned their children. I’m sure my patients over the years have done many grievous things. My tending to their needs in times of illness, debility or injury is not dictated by how these people lived their lives. Yes it is my job, but also, I believe my work exemplifies the way God made us to live- to love and serve one another. Even when we know the evil the other has done. As a nurse, this way of loving isn’t passive or sugar-coated. It requires the broken to do things that hurt so they can get better, and at times it compels me to ask patients facing their mortality what their hope is.

Today, I read a heartbreaking story from David French about his friend and former client, Mike Adams.  Mr. French’s eulogy is titled: A Eulogy for a Friend, a Lament for our Nation. America today—broken people, breaking each other.  I was disturbed, convicted and saddened by what I read. Mr. French’s friend had said provocative things. And people sought his ruin in response. I don’t know if someone loved Mr. Adams enough to get close and express concern about things he said.  As a people with screens in our faces, we don’t get face to face with others, see their sins and deal with them in an effort to bring wholeness. We do what Mr. French said. We break each other.

Undoubtedly there were many Mike Adams among the hundreds of thousands who’ve died of Covid-19. When the masses die we, as a culture, lament. But when among the masses one is exposed for some evil thing he or she said or did, we crush them. Jesus is not like this. And his people should not be like this either.

There is a distinct difference between our tendency to swoon over people and then destroy those same people on social media from a safe distance, and Jesus. Jesus doesn’t swoon, he knows what’s in people. He knows the evil that lurks in us all. But that knowing doesn’t lead him to destroy. Jesus, knowing what’s in us, deals with us, on a personal level. He lowers himself. He serves, even his betrayers, washing their feet (see John 13). We don’t naturally do this. The virtue of vulnerable love that exposes wickedness and offers redemption and reconciliation, is distinctly Christlike.

I expect humans to devour each other. But as Christians, vulnerable love should distinguish us from the rest of humanity. We should display a tangible foreignness in how we engage people, whether we know the wrong they’ve done or not. Not that we won’t be guilty of swooning and stabbing people, we will. I have. But we should be a people turning from idolizing and impaling others with our words. Increasingly, we should be a people noted for honoring and serving others, not because they’re good, but because Christ is good.

We have been sacrificially and scandalously served and loved by the God who knew our wickedness before we performed it. Therefore, as Christians, we should exhibit a kind of sobriety about humanity that knows the evil we’re all capable of. And with that sobriety we should bravely engage our fellow man with an other-wordly love.

There are a lot of shoulds in this blog. I don’t like shoulds. I want to be motivated by love, not rules. But just like a good parent, there is a need to remind a child what he should be doing, because we love him. I am as guilty as any of looking at the masses with sentimentality or with slander on my tongue. All these shoulds are aimed at me first. It’s hard to love like Jesus. It’s vulnerable. But it’s what I’m called to do. And it is love, that motivates me to do it.

The masses are dying around us, but get close Christian, close enough to love your enemy with your hands, like Jesus did with Judas. Get close enough to have a gracious conversation over coffee with your neighbor about what you heard your him say, like Jesus did with the woman at the well. Get low with the marginalized and despised, like Jesus did with lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes.  Don’t engage others this way because they’re kind or good. But because the Spirit of the Lord Jesus is upon us and he is immeasurably kind and good.

What this Christian white girl is learning as I listen

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Im listening. I’m learning.

I’m learning that the heroes of my American Christianity held out the gospel with one hand and the chains of their slaves with the other. I’m learning that the history I’ve been taught has left out a lot. As a result, I have believed a whitewashed narrative that made the wickedness my country’s greatness was built on look like noble American Christian bravery.

I’m learning at the least, the American church has turned a deaf ear to racism and at worst has preached and practiced it as Biblical. I’m learning that there are structures and practices in American government and in the church that have marginalized the lives and worth of black people.

I’m learning that my black friends are tired. Tired of trying to explain why. Tired of my passivity and ignorance. I’m learning that I don’t know what I don’t know.

I’m learning that I resist listening to people I can’t help, don’t understand, disagree with or feel uncomfortable around, and that in refusing to listen, a part of my heart has grown cold. My refusal to listen has increased my comfort and decreased my compassion. My refusal to listen has let the lies that have propped up my white sons’ insecurities go unchallenged. And because I haven’t listened I haven’t learned. And because I haven’t learned my neighbors have not experienced the hands and feet of Jesus that come with the hope of his gospel.

I began by listening to my Eritrean American friend, and fellow nurse. She told me in an aisle at the grocery store about her thankfulness for what she sees as God’s protection on her life and her family these 20 past years in America. I listened as she asked how my police officer husband was doing and told me she was praying for him. I listened as she told me she is afraid for her black sons.

And then I listened to my white teenage sons spout off support of President Trump. I asked questions and challenged them to explain what they supported about Trump. As a mother and a Trump detractor, my skin crawls thinking that in their teenage insecurity, my white sons might be drawn to and impressed by the machismo of the Trump presidency. I want to take Trump down in their minds with a lot of bad words, but instead I listened, trying to understand why they are where they are in their thought process. Then I told my sons we were going to listen to the Color of Compromise together. We sat, listened and began a dialogue.

I listened as the administrators of the Be the Bridge group I joined asked me to be quiet for three months on their social media group and do the work they provided me to learn. It’s an act of repentance of my ignorance to do the work of hearing from my black neighbor’s perspective.

I listened as a white, mentally-ill homeless woman told me how she got where she’s at and why she feels so stuck. I listened as she told a story of a lifetime of abuse, rejection and poverty.

Then I turned off the social media and listened to Moses and Job and Isaiah and David and Daniel and Jesus. I listened as the Spirit of God began stirring a fire in me. The cold places of my passive heart began to warm with compassion and conviction. The notes section of my iPhone are filled with quotes from scripture all telling me, “I am the God who saved you out of slavery to the sin of cowardliness. I am the God who lowered himself taking the form of a servant to lift you up and make you a child of God. Turn from your ignorance, your passivity, your cowardliness, your silence. Learn to listen. Learn to speak. Speak the truth in love. Love your neighbor and your enemy.”

I listened to God tell Cain, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” and Job’s friends tell him all the reasons he was wrong about why he was suffering. I listened to Job tell me to stop being a miserable comforter to my black friends.

I listened as God called Moses to go to the government structure enslaving his people and insist that they let them go. I listened to Isaiah and the prophets pleading with me to learn to do good, love mercy and work justice.  I listened to David declare the heart of God for the widow, the oppressed and poor. I listened to Daniel confess and repent of his sins and the sins of his fathers.

I listened to Jesus declare that I must love others, including my enemies and those who see me as an enemy, just like he has loved me. I listened as he and his apostle’s declared that love born from his Spirit in me will not only declare the gospel but extend a healing hand and care for the physical needs of the people around me. 

And I listened to my pastor call for me to examine myself to see, am I a Jesus person? Do I believe Jesus makes me righteous and do I love my neighbor by speaking the truth in love and, “disadvantaging myself to advantage someone else”?

I know, like any work of the Spirit of God in me, this must be an enduring work. Listening must become a practice. A rhythm. Speaking the truth in love must become a discipline. Working justice for the oppressed must become part of a gospel-driven, “long obedience in the same direction.” Saying and believing black lives matter and living a life that repents of the racist thoughts and beliefs that have become an ingrained part of the narrative that has kept me quiet and ignorant for so long, must become as daily as breathing. Something my black neighbors have been fighting to do for generations in this country and in the church.

Lord help me. Help me to be a listener. A learner. A repenter. A servant. A lover of my neighbor and my enemy. Help me to boldly declare the scandalous gospel that saved me and boldly decry the injustice that your gospel and your kingdom are driving out. Please call my sons to be men who chose the sufferings of Christ over the riches of this world and lay down their lives for others.

 

 

Christian, you are in ministry

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Tomorrow, people all over the U.S. will go to a local church. I have an opinion about what most of us going to church tomorrow think doing ministry means. I’d guess if you asked the average church attender, who among them is doing the work of the ministry, I bet they’d point to the pastor, the elders, the worship team, the children’s ministry leaders and teachers, and the student ministry leaders. I’d guess very few would say, “Me. I am doing the work of the ministry.” But that is exactly who the Bible says is to be doing the work of the ministry.

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” Ephesians 4:11-12

I serve as the kids ministry director at my church.  This isn’t the first time I’ve served in kids ministry in church. But this is the first time I’ve ever been on staff with a church and the first time I’ve submitted myself to learning to lead others well for the kingdom’s sake. This year I’ve come to realize what the mindset about ministry is among those of us who go to church and serve in some capacity on a team in our churches. The prevailing thought seems to be something like, “I serve at my church. But the pastor and the kids ministry director and the worship leader… the staff are ‘in ministry’.”

I have a theory about the connection between the lack of passion among church members about their role as Christians in the church, at home, at work and in their neighborhoods. I believe the lack of zeal among us is at least in part because we think of ministry as something that the church staff or pastor or missionaries do. We don’t think of ministry as what the nurse, the pool guy, the college student who works at Dairy Queen and the stay-at-home mom does.

I believe the thought that ministry is something pastors or missionaries, not average everyday church members do, creates a task-oriented service mindset. Without “the saints” being equipped and having a passion and conviction within themselves that they are called to ministry, volunteerism and service teams in churches will lack passion and gospel growth.

I’m in a great local church. There’s a healthy mantra among the staff and leaders in my church that says, “We don’t use people to build the church. We use the church to build people.”  We believe the heavy lifting is on our knees, asking God to move on hearts, save our friends, and fill us with joy in serving one another. But I’ve noticed in myself and in other volunteers in the church, when feel burned-out or run-down in serving, it can almost always be traced back to what motivates us to serve. If we see serving at church as a good thing to do, as sort of a holy task we add to our weekly to-do list, we run out of steam. When we drag our busy lives along with us and add church on at the end (or beginning) of a busy week, serving in any capacity on a Sunday feels like a tax.

But when we see our lives in light of the gospel; when we see our lives as not our own; when we see our lives as being for, “…the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ,” a fire of love drives our service.

The Bible lays out the case that every Christian is in ministry. Each one of us makes up a, “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). As a side note, I wonder if a lot of the drive behind women in some Christian circles striving to be honored as pastors comes out of a lack of belief that every Christian (male or female) is in ministry. But I digress.

So what is, “the work of the ministry”? We certainly aren’t all to quit our day jobs and start vocational roles as pastors, teachers or missionaries. So what does it mean to be in ministry for those not in full-time vocations of teaching or preaching or leading in the church?  I’m sure it means more, but I see at least three things it means. To do the work of the ministry is to:

  1. Build up other people in the local church so they can become more like Jesus. Ephesians 4 says that Christ gave pastors and teachers to the church to equip us to do the work of the ministry so that we would grow mature in Christ. Jesus calls us shift workers, artists, plumbers, students and parents to ministry so that the other people in our local church will grow up! We help each other grow. The work of the ministry isn’t philanthropic or volunteer work in general. Ministry is how one Christian serves another person in the local church to help them become more like Jesus.
  2. Be ambassadors for Christ to the those in our neighborhoods and work, outside the church. An ambassador is a representative of one country stationed in another. Christian, we are ministers and ambassadors of Jesus’ kingdom as God works through us to bring the hope of the gospel to those who do not believe (2 Corinthians 5:14, 20). That is ministry every Christian is called to. We represent Christ to the world. And that leads to the last thing I see doing the work of the ministry means.
  3. Serve Christ with my whole life. For eternity we will be talking about the riches of the grace Christ has poured on us, bringing us into the family of God (Ephesians 1:5-7). We give nothing- no services, no sacrifice- that is not first given to us in Jesus. And so to do the work of the ministry is to give myself with zeal daily to his service. Whatever I do, whether it be at my local church on Sunday morning, or on Tuesday evening with my kids doing homework, or on Saturday with my husband cleaning the house, or any other thing I do all week… my life is not my own.  Christ died for me so I would stop living for myself and start living for him, as I was made to (2 Corinthians 5:15).

All of life for the Christian is ministry. And when we see our lives that way, serving in some capacity on a Sunday will be one way we are doing the work of the ministry, building others in the church up to make them more like Jesus.

Why I stopped listening to Matt Chandler and started listening to my pastor, Jason Vance

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“Who’s Jason Vance?” you may ask. Nobody famous. And that’s the whole point. He’s the young church-planting pastor of my local church.

A few years ago my small church closed. My pastor retired, went into a teaching ministry role and moved to Oregon. That sent me and my two sons into about three years of having no local church. I tried. Every Sunday I set out to services at a different church, hoping to find the one that fit for us. As the weeks went on, and nothing seemed to be a good fit, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, Ray Ortlund and other famous pastors’ fed me with good teaching online without requiring me to leave my house. And I found it harder and harder to even want to find a local church.

But when trouble came, I couldn’t lean on online preachers. I needed a local group of Christians I could get to know and who would get to know me so we could bear one another’s burdens. I eventually found a good church where I now serve as a kids ministry leader, and am part of a small group of people I would never have formed friendships with if it were not for this local church. But I noticed something in the first months at my church: I was comparing my pastor’s preaching and my church’s liturgy to what I had been listening and watching online for the past three years.

I’m not sure exactly when it hit me, but somewhere between my pastor preaching and prayers with a neighbor I was convicted that if I wanted to love my church and be part of what God is doing through her, I had to stop comparing her to famous churches and pastors or some ideal version of church I had in my head.

I am not saying it’s wrong to be a famous pastor or large church or even to listen to online sermons or teachings from well-known Christian leaders. But I am saying I think there’s a correlation between the obsession we Americans have with independence, fame, wealth and size and our disconnection from the unknown local pastor, church and Jesus’ call to love one another as he has loved us.  Actually, its not even just us Americans. The early church in Corinth had the same problem. And Paul chastised them.

“…for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” 1 Corinthians 3:3-5

In sharing all this with my pastor the other day he said something that really summed up the whole reason I stopped listening to Matt Chandler and started listening to my pastor, Jason Vance.  He said something like, “You can’t face conflict and use the gospel with an idea.” That’s all you have when you only listen to Christian leaders online or in books- an idea. But in the local church you have people that are going to fail you, and you’re going to fail them. In the local church you’ll have to use the gospel face to face.

I see loved ones and friends who prefer a church they can walk in and out of without connecting with anyone; or a podcast-ed sermon from a famous pastor; or even time alone with their Bible in silence over investing themselves in the lives of the broken people in their local church.  I was once one of them.  For many, past church hurt keeps them from connecting and submitting to a local church.  For others, it’s the problems we see in the culture in local churches that turn us off. The thing is, the very reason many of us have shrunk back from the local church is the reason we need to press into her.

The place where sin has caused damage is the place where we need to call each other out in love, seeking wholeness and restoration (Galatians 6:1). The place where we’re offended with one another is where we’re called to forgive (Ephesians 4:32). The place where we don’t agree is where we’re called to voice our concerns, pray and submit to leaders. The place where the burdens are great is the place we’re supposed help each other carry the load (Galatians 6;2). The place where it hurts is where Jesus has called us to take up our cross and follow him. We won’t have to bear a cross if we insulate our lives from one another.

As someone once pointed out, all those “one anothers” we read in the Bible are the local church. You can’t “one another” with a podcast or a book.

It’s too easy to be in agreement with the ideas of Christianity and not actually live them out. When you hear a compelling message from Matt Chandler online you can, “Amen!” all you want, but unless you’re having to forgive and be forgiven in a face-to-face relationship with broken people like you, you’re just an idea-lover. Jesus wants us to be people-lovers like him. He laid down his life, not for an idea, but for hypocrites, and humbled sinners, rich and poor, healthy and disabled, religious and rebellious. Jesus laid his life down for the church. And we’re to lay down our lives for one another.

 

 

 

 

How to study the Bible for love not knowledge

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There is a way to study the Bible solely to be more knowledgeable, more academic, and in itself there’s nothing wrong with being more Bible literate and scholarly. But there’s a huge danger in studying the Bible to know it so well you can add letters to the end of your name. It’s the danger the men who studied the law in Jesus’ day fell into. But that danger did not lead Jesus and should not lead us to steer clear of studying the Bible.  There are two practices that will keep you and I from falling into the mouth of pride when it comes to studying the Bible:

1) Look for Jesus

The Jesus Storybook Bible is for me one of the greatest works ever written on the Bible. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but pastors and teachers, Bible scholars and lay people studying the Bible should use it as sort of a danger-meter to see if their studying is leading them to fall off the cliff of pride. The tagline for Sally Lloyd-Jones’ book is, “Every story whispers his name.” But Sally Lloyd-Jones didn’t make up this good idea. Jesus did.

In Luke 24, after Jesus is raised from the dead, he joined a conversation two men were having while walking to a town called Emmaus. These men were disillusioned and dejected followers of Jesus. They witnessed the horrific death of the one they thought was the promised descendant of David who would lead Israel to victory over their enemies and bring peace to their land again. But Jesus broke into their conversation and said, ““O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)  These men knew their Bibles, but they missed Jesus. Jesus helped them see that the whole message of the scriptures they clung to was about him. 

When you pick up your Bible you should study it. You should ask the text questions. What is this telling me about God? What is going on here in this text? What does this word mean? But in your examination of the scriptures don’t fail to ask the most important questions, “Where is Jesus in this? How is this pointing to Jesus? How is Jesus needed here?”

Jesus is God’s word (John 1:1-3). That book on your shelf or in your phone that says Holy Bible on it is just the manuscript that speaks about Jesus. Study the words and listen for Jesus.

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. ” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

2) Study so you can love someone else like Jesus and deliver his message to them.

Paul, when instructing the early church said, “…knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” (In context from 1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

We fear what we don’t know, and knowing things is good. It’s good to be educated, to gain knowledge, especially when it comes to God’s message to us, but we can’t avoid the pitfall of getting puffed up if we only seek knowledge and not love. 

The great command of God is to love him with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). As with everything we do as Christians, the aim of our practice is to love God and others the way Jesus did. Studying the Bible should never be just for increasing your knowledge.

If you have the entire 66 books memorized and can quote famous theologians and understand difficult doctrines and can whip out the four spiritual laws like a citation for every person you meet but you don’t lower yourself to lead the next generation to Jesus, pour yourself out for those who can’t give back to you, and lay down your life for your spouse, your children, your neighbors, speaking the hope of the gospel into their lives and living the hope of the gospel with your own life, you’re just a loud, annoying Bible-egghead.

The practice of studying the Bible is listening for Jesus and the aim of studying the Bible is love. I study the Bible with a group of ladies who’s chief purpose is to pull out of the text a message we can feed to children about the hope of the good news of Jesus Christ. When we get together it’s a feast! We aren’t looking for clever insights that build our resume. We’re looking for life-giving truth we can digest and regurgitate for the kids we’re going to teach on Sunday. Like mamma birds, we aren’t gathering morsels for ourselves only, we’re gathering so we can feed our little ones.

Study your Bible. But be ware of the danger of pride. Keep yourself on the safe path by looking for Jesus and feeding what you find to someone else.

 

Laughing at promises

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One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in Romans 4:16-17 where it says, “…to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations;- in the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told…

I struggle with depression. I don’t always feel like laughing or even smiling. I hear the hopeless thoughts and know what the psalmist meant when he said he pleaded for God to let him hear his voice so he didn’t become like a dead man (Psalm 143:7). The circumstances of our lives can often send us the same message Abraham and Sarah got from their circumstances, “We’re as good as dead!” God gave them an outrageous promise. He said they would have a child when they were obviously too old to do so. God’s promise was impossible in their circumstances. And just as Abraham and Sarah were promised the impossible, we too are promised something that just can’t be in our physical, mental and spiritual condition.

Abraham and Sarah both laughed at the thought that God would give them a child in their old age. Surely they laughed at the scandal of the idea. When I face the impossibility of the promises God has made to me in Christ, my first inclination is not to laugh. It’s to do what Sarah did- doubt and try to do the best I can with what I have and end up with lots of Ishmaels in my life; lots of self-made ways to try and be what only God can make me in Christ. And then when I find myself in the mess I’ve made, like Sarah I’m angry and depressed. I forget what God promised. But when I remember, when I see Christ in the scriptures, in the church, in my life, there is something in me that just wants to laugh.

Proverbs 31:25 says of the woman who fears the Lord, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.”

I used to read that and think, “How can she laugh? There are so many bad things. So many hard things. So much death. So much isn’t right in the world or in my life, how can I be a woman who fears the Lord and laughs at the future?” I had this idea that her laughter was a mocking victorious laughter. A sort of, “Haha! Give me your best shot future! I’ve got this!” But as I read about Sarah and Abraham and the laughter that came out of them at Isaac’s birth, I think this laughing at the time to come is an unexplained joy we feel when we believe God, despite all the impossible circumstances in our lives that seem to say there’s no way God can make me like Jesus and make all things right and destroy evil, sin and death. God is doing what he promised in us!

There is no way we can make the things God promises come to pass. But just as God promised and gave Isaac to as-good-as-dead Abraham and Sarah, he will make us who feel the weight of sin and death in our bodies, who were once dead apart from Christ- he will and is making us free (John 8:36), alive (Ephesians 2:5) and whole (2 Timothy 3:17) because he’s given us Jesus. He will finish what he’s started in us (Philippians 1:6). He will make all things new (Galatians 21:5). And we will reign with him forever (2 Timothy 2:12)!

Practices with your Bible that will keep you humble (and make William Tyndale proud)

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The accessibility of scripture is something people before us have given their lives for.

William Tyndale (1494-1536) laid down his life so that, “… the boy who drives the plow,” could know the scriptures even better than the Pope of his time. The stories of how the translation of the Bible, at the blood, sweat and tears of many, was preserved and made readily available to us should humble us. It is a treasure we have on our phones and bound in board, paper and leather. But for many of us, it’s a relic or a good luck charm or a reminder that we “should” read it, but we don’t. Our Bibles and the broken and beautiful people of God are the way the Holy Spirit feeds us, comes alongside us, leads us, teaches us, helps us see, and gives us faith.

I’m not a boy who drives a plow. I am a low-energy, struggles-with-depression, mom and wife who drives a Ford Edge with a dent scratched right through the Ford symbol on the back because I closed the garage door while the back hatch was open. Mr. Tyndale’s life was not spent in vain. His work to translate the scriptures into English has reached me. I don’t claim to know my Bible better than the Pope or a Bible scholar, but I have reaped the benefits of growing in my faith as I’ve wrestled with, prayed through, chewed on and shared what the Spirit teaches me as I read my Bible and hear its message proclaimed.

The Bible can be and has been misused. Like a sharp knife, it can be used to heal or kill. Throughout time, the word of God has been wielded to serve the self-exalting interest of the person or people holding it as a weapon of power or self-defense.  It can also be ignorantly misused, like a child playing with his daddy’s hunting knife.  I think when we pick up our Bibles we should do so with a kind of trembling. We should be aware that when we, prone-to-wander sinners by nature, redeemed though we are, read our Bibles we will tend to see it applying to everyone else, and turn every story into a moral lesson for making our lives more successful. But you don’t have to be skilled in Bible memory sword drills or have a degree in theology to be changed by God’s message in the Bible.

Here I offer these modern-day plow boy (or girl as it were) practices that will help you pick up your Bible with a holy fear and childlike faith that will serve to transform you, keeping you humble and growing in grace.

Look For Jesus

Look and listen for sights and sounds of Jesus.  In one of my favorite stories in the Bible, the risen Jesus walks alongside some men who, dejected and disillusioned walked a road processing what had just happened at the crucifixion of the one they thought would be their king. When Jesus, hearing how lost and confused they were spoke to help them, the story says, “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27). The Bible is meant to lead you to one person- Jesus! Looking for him in long genealogies, or poetry, or details about dimensions of a temple is challenging. One practice that helps (some good pastor taught me this), is when reading about kings, priests and prophets, let them speak to you of Jesus both in comparison and contrast. Jesus is the greater of all the kings, priests and prophets. In much of your reading it will take time, like following a long road home, to begin to see how these stories are leading to Jesus. But as you begin, ask yourself, “What does this tell me about God? How did this lead to a need for Jesus to come? What does this tell me about humanity?” Over time, like the men on the road to Emmaus in Luke, you’ll begin to see the things concerning Jesus. And when you do it’s beautiful! It’s so worth it.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49)

Study to Teach a Child

Tell your kids, or grand-kids or neighbor kids and kids at your church’s children’s ministry what you see of Jesus in a story or text. One of the most important things the Bible says we’re supposed to do with his message is tell it to the next generation.  I have been an attender at many Bible studies over the years. They are good. Don’t get me wrong here. But the best kind of Bible study is not the one done among people just like you- all women, all men, all of a certain affinity- (and study books written by Christian authors does not constitute a Bible study). The best kind of Bible study is the one done in an effort to pass the message of the Bible on to someone else. Taking the rich feast of scripture and making it palatable and digestible for a child is a Christlike posture of humility that is sure to produce gospel fruit.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

Insert Your Name for the Bad Guy

Every time you read about the “bad guy” or cringe at some evil or bad choice someone makes, put your name there. Your first tendency will be think of your spouse, parent, neighbor, president, child… anyone but yourself. When you catch yourself thinking, “I wish so and so would read this, or believe this…” Or, “That’s just like such and such…” stop! Stop in your tracks right there. Put your name in the place of Sarah telling her husband to take another woman and impregnate her, then turning on the same woman abusively. Put your name in place of drunken Noah and his shady son. Put your name in the place of runaway Jonah, and mocking Peter, and money-hungry Judas. And then remember that Jesus died because in your heart and mine dwells the same sin that brought these to such shameful places. Then thank God. Sing. Praise him for saving a wretch like me and you and Noah.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:7-12)

Insert Your Name for the Righteous

Every time you read the word “saint” or “righteous” or “redeemed”, put your name there and get on your knees. In you and I dwells the fallen tendency to feed the sinful, deadly instinct of our flesh. But thanks be to God, Jesus has put the shame and guilt and condemnation of that nature to death and given us a heart tender to his beauty and love. Let what you read about the saint and the righteous and the redeemed inform your identity as a child of God by expensive grace. The work of Jesus has made you and me saints. We are holy ones because Jesus died for us. We are righteous because Jesus has given us his righteousness. We are redeemed because the blood of Jesus paid the price for your life.

“…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:29-31)

Take up your Bible today, even now. Start at the beginning, or start where your church is currently at in the Bible. Use a Bible reading plan. However and wherever you start, start. Let the lives of those before you who suffered so you could have the Bible in your language be honored. Let the life of Jesus who embodied every truth, won every victory, fought every battle, presides as the righteous judge over every judgement and became for us every bit of our sinfulness, bearing the curse of death in our place, making us children of God- let his life be feasted upon and resurrected in you.