It’s tempting to be cynical about the state of American evangelicalism. But Jesus protects us from cynicism by reminding us of an essential truth about his disciples: Jesus knows who belongs to him, and that’s really good news.
What do we do if we think a member of our discipleship group may not be a Christian? It’s not an easy question to answer, but here are a few points to consider.
We’ve entered another season of new releases, with my desk at work becoming cluttered and the occasional book finding its way into my mailbox too. Here’s a look at four books I’m particularly excited about reading:
Growing Down by Michael Kelley. I love when Michael Kelley writes books. He writes like someone who means what he’s writing, which sound strange but isn’t. His new book is intended to remind us what it means to be a mature believer—which counterintuitively means shedding our tendencies toward self-reliance and independence and growing in our dependence upon Christ.
How to Ruin Your Life by Eric Geiger. This one is going to be solid, that much I am sure of. I’ve heard Eric speak on the concepts in this book before, and they hit that sweet spot of challenging, but hope-filled. I’ll share more as I dig in.
Eschatological Discipleship by Trevin Wax. Trevin has confirmed that this is not a book about the end times. Instead, he wants to help us grow our understanding of “eschatological” beyond questions of millennial views and who is/isn’t being left behind in order to embrace a broader view which shapes how we make disciples right now. Should be a fun one.
So those are a few that I’m excited for right now. What’ve you got on your plate that you’re looking forward to reading?
Ever since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve served in Kids ministry. For the majority of the last 12 and a half years, this has been a massive part of how I’ve served in the church. Why? Initially, because I was asked. That’s about it. The second time, it was because I actually did want to be a part of discipling kids, but I also wanted an outlet to teach. The third time, it was just because I wanted to serve wherever I could help with making disciples.
People give Kids Ministry a hard time because it seems to be all about playing games, handing out fishy crackers, and telling kids to be good. That’s not Kids Ministry, though. That’s babysitting. Kids Ministry is about making disciples. It is about feeding the smallest members of Christ’s flock. And if it’s about feeding the smallest of Christ sheep, then it’s not a lesser ministry. It is gospel ministry, and so they need the gospel, week in and week out. They need to know the truths of the Christian faith. They need to know all that Christ has done for them.
Spurgeon said it well in Come Ye Children:
With the weak of the flock, with the new converts in the flock, with the young children in the flock, our principal business is to feed. Every sermon, every lesson, should be a feeding sermon and a feeding lesson. It is of little use to stand and thump the Bible and call out,” Believe, believe, believe!” when nobody knows what is to be believed. I see no use in fiddles and tambourines; neither lambs nor sheep can be fed upon brass bands. There must be doctrine, solid, sound, gospel doctrine to constitute real feeding. When you have a joint on the table, then ring the dinner-bell; but the bell feeds nobody if no provender is served up. Getting children to meet in the morning and the afternoon is a waste of their steps and yours if you do not set before them soul saving, soul-sustaining truth. Feed the lambs; you need not pipe to them, nor put garlands round their necks; but do feed them.
Friends, especially those among you with aspirations of preaching and teaching, let’s never be too proud to serve in Kids Ministry. Never treat it as unimportant or beneath us. If you care about making disciples, you should care about serving with kids.
Five years ago, I went to Nashville for the first time. I was asked to live blog a webcast for this new curriculum Trevin Wax, who I’d connected with via email, Twitter and a couple of conferences, was responsible for. Something called The Gospel Project.
I was a little nervous coming in. After all, I was just some dude from Canada with an internet website.[1. And not the one who is kind of a big deal.] A weblog, if you will. Plus, my wife was super-pregnant at that point and our son was due any day. As we prayed and discussed, Emily was convinced I should go even if it meant there was a chance she could go into labor while I was away. So, I took the risk. I got on the plane and later that day stepped into the building for the first time.
I furiously took notes as Matt Chandler, JD Greear, and Ed Stetzer each preached a 15 minute message each around the core values of the curriculum, the central components of gospel, theology, and mission. As soon as everything was done, I got on a plane with a backpack, some books and a couple of GooGoo Clusters,[2. Nashville’s gift to candy connoisseurs everywhere.] fully convinced that this curriculum could be a game-changer for churches, especially in kids ministry. (I also was pleased to see that my son had not yet made his grand entrance into the world when I got home, so that was nice, too.)
I had no idea that, five years later, I would be working as part of The Gospel Project team. Instead, I went back to my normal life. I served in my church. I worked at my job. I lived the dad life. And I told pastor friends about The Gospel Project. When our church was looking for new kids ministry curriculum, I encouraged looking at The Gospel Project (and it eventually one out). Later, I taught the kids in our church using it for three years, while also continuing to tell pastors about the curriculum. And then, eventually, that lead to an opportunity to join the team.
But here’s the thing: I was advocating for the material long before it was my job. I do it as my job because I still believe it’s a game-changer for churches, not just in kids ministry, but across all ages. And if it weren’t my job, I’d still be doing it. Why? Because I genuinely believe that there is nothing that changes lives like the gospel. It shapes how and what we think and say and do and love. It transforms every part of us, moment by moment. I’ve seen that in my own life. I’ve seen it in my family’s. I’ve seen it in friends. And I’ve seen it in entire church communities.
Every time I see it, I’m always amazed. No matter how many conversations I have, it never gets old. Nothing changes lives like the gospel. I really believe that. I pray you do, as well.
There are approximately 12,046 articles[1. Made up statistic.] about what the church needs to do to reach Millennials. Usually, they come in listicle form, explaining to the world in 5-12 points what needs to change for Millennials to… Well, sometimes I’m not exactly sure what. I struggle with these posts because they’re not particularly convicting.
For example, in the closing days of 2016, I stumbled upon another one of these when a former colleague shared a blog post offering “12 reasons millennials are OVER church.” The arguments were the ones I’ve read a thousand times before:
Millennials want to be mentored and create authentic community. The want to be listened to and given “a seat at the table”. Churches need to spend differently and care for the poor. We need less preaching and more doing. They need to stop creating new mission and vision statements because Jesus already gave us one (to which I would say “amen” if the mission Jesus gave us was mentioned). Unless we do these things, and a few more besides, Millennials will keep being “over” church. And we’ll miss out on an entire generation that wants to be so over the moon about going to church each week that they’d make Ned Flanders seem like a backslider by comparison.
On my struggle to sympathize
There’s a degree to which I sympathize with some of the concerns this specific author points out, and others more broadly. Should our churches strive to be good stewards and maximize every dollar? Yep. Is any church perfect at this? Nope. (And for the record, I know of few churches that are secretive about their financial records—many operate on an “ask and we’ll show you as much as you want” policy.) Can some churches be cliquey and lack authentic community? Sure. Do we need to listen to people with different life experiences better? Uh-huh. Do we spend too much time crafting mission and vision statements? I don’t know, probably some do. But, on the other hand, is it wrong to create one that speaks to how a church exists to fulfill our greater mission (the Great Commission) within its local context?
You can probably see that even in this, I struggle. My issue is that, on a fundamental level, I simply disagree with generalized assertions about churches and Christians. And frankly, I’m tired of Millennials doing themselves a disservice and displaying most every negative stereotype about them that’s been recorded to date. Let me offer a few quick examples:
- When I read a Millennial declare that churches aren’t doing a good enough job caring for the poor, my first response is, “How do you know?” Consider for a moment that The Southern Baptist Convention administrates one of the largest relief agencies in the world. Thousands upon thousands of churches offer assistance to those in need, both at home and globally, though local acts in their communities and supporting organizations like Compassion International.
But here’s the thing: most aren’t showy about their care of those in need. Why? Because doing so runs contrary to the spirit of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:2-4. If we make a big fuss about what we do, guess what? We’ve got our reward. We’ve strutted our stuff and let everyone know, in our best Ron Burgundy impression, how good we look. But based on Jesus’ words, we’re not supposed to do that. So why would we expect it?
- Then there’s listening and having a seat at the table. My question is, “What do you mean by that?” For some, I suspect there’s a legitimate frustration with not heard in any way. But for others, I have a hunch it’s a desire for power or influence (and to have it right away). But again, these generalizations don’t mesh with reality. There are thousands upon thousands of Millennials in vocational and volunteer leadership, many of whom have served for a decade or more. They do have a voice because they earned it through their character, first, and commitment, second.
Having a place at the table, having a voice, is something that’s earned. It took me a long time to figure that out, to my shame. I assumed that because I’m smart, I should be listened to. The problem is, I wasn’t humble and didn’t have a track record for faithful service. Chances are if someone is “over” church, they don’t have that kind of track record either because they’ve not chosen to commit.
- Finally, to the complaint of too much preaching and too little action, I don’t even have a question to offer. It’s just wrong. In fact, I would argue that the problem in many churches isn’t that there is too much preaching[2. Though some sermons might be too long.] it’s that there isn’t enough gospel-saturated, Christ-exalting preaching. When Jesus is proclaimed, people are captivated by him. And the more people are captivated by him, the more naturally they begin to pursue him (no matter how incrementally).
For the person who is tired of preaching, consider: what message are you hearing? If you’re not hearing the gospel come through, yeah, you have a reason to be burnt out on it. But if Jesus is faithfully and consistently proclaimed and you’re not captivated by him, there’s a different issue to consider.
Have you considered…?
I realize that, at this point, I probably sound like a curmudgeon crabbing about how “these kids today” need to pay their dues. But you know what? It’s kind of true. I’m not quite a Millennial, but I’m pretty close (endstage Gen-Xer). I’m married to a Millennial. My children are post-Millennials.[3. And all the eschatology nerds giggled.] I also work with dozens of Millennials who are faithfully serving the church, both in their local communities and more broadly.
So here’s my question for those who keep writing incessantly about what the church needs to do to win you as a Millennial: have you considered that the problem might not entirely be the church?
You’ve identified a bunch of problems. Great. So what are you doing to change them in your local church? If you want authentic community, how are you a part of building that? If you want to be heard, how are you serving faithfully? If you’re concerned about caring for the poor, what are you doing to be an example? If you’re concerned about people’s faith being lived out, how is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pursue Christ as you pray and read the Scriptures?
These questions are relevant for more than just Millennials. We all need be asking ourselves them, regardless of our demographics. If we’re serious about growing in our faith, we have to realize that we need other believers—and we need the local church. It’s not something we can ever be “over”.
A few weeks ago, I went on a work trip to visit a church in Texas so I could tell their story. The day there was amazing—so many lovely people who dearly love the Lord, and whose lives have been positively changed by engaging with the Scriptures through The Gospel Project. A short while later, I spent about three weeks combing through all of the material we filmed, and it was brilliant. (Seriously, I can’t wait to share the finished product with y’all soon.)
As I watched the raw footage, making my notes about what to use and where I found myself thanking God. The church’s leaders have a singular goal: to see their congregation grow in Christ. To see people far from Christ become disciples, and disciples become disciple makers. To know Jesus better and to make him known. And every person who spoke with us said the same thing: focusing on Jesus, focusing on the gospel, matters because the gospel changes lives.
This is why I love baptisms. I love hearing how Christ has been at work, and how the Holy Spirit has given new life to people who have encountered Jesus, and why I love telling my own very complicated of coming to know Christ. It’s why I love good theology and helpful songs, and even really great curriculum. When I focus on Christ, it makes me want more of Christ.
It doesn’t matter how old we are, or how long we’ve been in the faith. There will always be more work that the Holy Spirit is going to do in us as we set our eyes on Christ. When we are captivated by his beauty and say along with John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
That’s something I pray we never tire of. It’s something I pray we all fight to hold onto. Focusing on Jesus makes us want more of Jesus and transforms us to be more like Jesus. Read the Scriptures with this in mind. Pray with this as your goal. Keep your focus on Jesus, because when you do, it changes everything.
For ages, I’ve been working on a proposal and sample chapters on a book I desperately want to write. But it’s also one I’m terrified to write. Why? Because it is very personal. I’m not a “write a memoir at 37” kind of guy, and this book wouldn’t be that (at least, I don’t think it would). But discusses aspects of my own story—my life—in ways I’ve never really written before.
And that freaks me out.
It doesn’t scare me because it’s too personal, of course. It freaks me out because I know what people have a tendency to get a little weird when they hear about parts of my life, or how I came to faith. I know what it’s like to have events questions and picked apart. And it’s not fun. (You know you’re in for it when people ask “how do you know it wasn’t just…?”)
But regardless, I need to tell my story anyway. So I do. It’s been told in blog posts here and there. It’s been told in videos, and in person countless times. And I tell it because people need to hear it. But they don’t need to hear it because they need to hear how great my life is with Jesus in it.
But they don’t need to hear it because they need to hear how great my life is with Jesus in it. They need to hear it and be reminded of how great Jesus for saving knuckleheads like me.
Maybe you resonate with what I’ve just written. Maybe you’ve been avoiding telling your story to anyone, or to too many people. There’s something holding you back—fear, anxiety, a desire for a peaceful existence…
But the thing is, just as much as people need to hear my story, they need to hear yours, too.
Both Christians and non-Christians need to hear what God has done in your life. Believers need to be encouraged by what God is doing. Non-Christians need to be challenged by what God has done. You might not change their minds, but you will at least plant a seed, which is all we need to do.
So, tell the story. Be honest and unashamed. Tell what God has done. Tell what God is doing. Plead with him to give you the words you’ll need to speak, and trust him with the results.
One of my favorite times of the day, after coming home and greeting my family, is seeing what mail has arrived. This is not because I love finding out how many bills are waiting for me, but because there’s often a new book waiting for me from one of the many Christian publishers out there (and occasionally from a non-Christian one). Here’s a look at several of the more noteworthy books that have arrived over the last while:
The Gospel Project Bible (B&H Publishing Group). This new study Bible “is designed to lead readers to understand basic biblical doctrines, to see how all the Scriptures point to Jesus, and to join Him in His mission of seeking and saving the lost.” One of my favorite things about it so far? The summaries of all 99 of The Gospel Project’s essential doctrines. (For more on this Bible, check out this post on the Gospel Project blog.)
Living in the Light: Money, Sex & Power by John Piper (The Good Book Company). This compact book is demonstrates how Christians can enjoy these three “dangerous opportunities” in a way that “satisfies you, serves the world and glorifies God.” I’ll almost certainly be reading this in the next few weeks.
Liberating King by Stephen Miller (Baker Books). I’m just starting to crack into this one, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. This book is all about the good news we all need—how the gospel overcomes our sin and how “holy living is within our grasp when we keep our eyes and our adoration on the one who was sent not only to save us but also to make us into new creations.”
Habits of Our Holiness by Philip Nation (Moody). This new book on the spiritual disciplines “connects [them] to all of life” by showing how they have their “greatest power when practiced in community and on mission.”
Pictures of a Theological Exhibition by Kevin Vanhoozer (IVP Academic). “Through essays on the church’s worship, witness and wisdom, Vanhoozer shows us how a poetic imagination can answer the questions of life’s meaning by drawing our attention to what really matters: the God of the gospel.” Having flipped through this, it’s definitely one I want to read (hopefully soon), but it’s not going to be a fast one.
Delivered from the Elements of the World by Peter Leithhart (IVP Academic). Purporting to elude conventional categories, this book on the atonement “prods our theological imaginations” by reframing Anselm’s question “Why the God Man?” instead asking, “”How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century . . . be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”
Aspire: Transformed by the Gospel by Matt Rogers (Seed Publishing Group, LLC). This is a new 15-week workbook style study intended to be used to disciple believers in a church context. Think one-on-one relationships or groups of three. The content in it looks really solid so far, balancing theological insights and practical application well.
And a bonus book (one I purchased):
The Complete Father Brown Stories by G.K. Chesterton (Penguin Classics). Chesterton’s writing brings me joy, so I’m looking forward to working my way through each story featuring this Catholic priest… who also happens to be an amateur detective.
“Why do you think God cares about being first in people’s hearts, and how we use his name, and stuff like that?”
My daughter had to think for a minute. Her lesson in kid’s ministry this weekend was on the first four of the Ten Commandments, and while she knew what they were, I was asking a harder question: why do they matter? I went a bit deeper with her as I explained:
“Think about it this way: God’s people are supposed to show the world something of what he is like, right? That means everything we do and say, says to the world, ‘God is like this.’ Does that make sense?”
She nodded her head, and thankfully not in an “approving so we can stop talking about this” kind of way.
“So, if we say we love God, but we are always putting other things first in our lives, or we’re saying things about him that aren’t true, are we telling the world what God is really like?”
She thought for a minute. “No. Because we’d be lying about him.”
This is an example of the teachable moments I get to have with my oldest child, and I am so grateful for every opportunity I have to openly and clearly teach her about Christianity and our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. But thinking back on our morning conversation, I can’t help but think of all the other opportunities that exist—and all the other lessons she’s learning from me about who God is and what he is like (and in many cases, what he isn’t).
About how imperfect a Christian parent I am.
When I am patient with my daughter, and helping her understand a difficult concept, I’m reflecting something of God to her. When I’m inconsistent with my disciplinary actions (whether in the actions themselves or in my failure to properly explain why whatever consequence is necessary and appropriate), I risk her wondering if God is similar.
This is why we’ve tried, from as early an age as possible, to make sure all our kids know I am not perfect.[1. This applies to Emily, too, of course, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.] That I am going to get things wrong. That I am going to need to apologize to them (and probably do it a lot). I’m going to fail them and disappoint them at least some of the time. I want them to know their dad sins as much as anyone, and is as much in need of grace and forgiveness as they are. That all the things we about together—the good news of the gospel, the need for repentance, growing to be more like Jesus—apply to me, too.
I want them to know that even when I’m at my best, Jesus is better still—and that even when I fail, God never will.
And that might be the most important lesson I can ever teach them.