We Are Going to Have to Start Over

Over the past few months, we have learned that there really is only one thing that remains constant…that is that nothing is constant. COVID has come in and seems to change everything we have held dear for years overnight. Just when we adjust there are new challenge and changes we face daily. COVID has come and has done damage to the health of our country but also it has shaken the foundations of our confidence and the normality of our daily lives.

In times of prolonged uncertainty novel is not the answer. People don’t want a new normal they don’t want digital everything they want the comfort of old truth. Coming out of quarantine I knew that we were going to have a slow path back but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what the reality presently is…I think we are going to have to start over.

I say this because about 10% of our kids have come back and only 10% of our volunteers have returned. There are lots of reasons for this. Many in isolation have reevaluated priories and have moved to be closer to family, some are still scarred by the daily barrage of media, still, others are waiting for a cure. These are uncertain times. These are times filled with difficulty for every leader because no matter what decision you make someone will not be pleased.

We in our churches have been dealing with things as they have arisen on the fly. I have seen much creativity from the church in creating Zoom small groups for Youth and doing kids shows on YouTube. Those are great adaptations but the longer everything lingers the more I am convinced that I think the reality is that we are going to need to start over. I have often thought about what would I do differently in kids and youth ministry if I had to start over from scratch knowing what I know now after 23 years leading in the same church.

Here are a few things we are going to need to change.

  1. Discipleship needs more thought and investment than environments. There has been much focus on excellence in kids and youth environments and not enough on how do we create lifelong followers of Christ. What things do we need to teach and how can we teach them to kids in a way that creates lifelong faith in Christ? These need to consume our thoughts and drive our budgets.
  2. We need to rely more on training live teachers and less on video elements. Video doesn’t have the same impact in a zoom or online setting that a loving teacher teaching kids live over zoom or making phone calls to kids can make. Video is wrong but people are better.
  3. Small group leaders are going to have to know kids better. When difficulty hits small group leaders that know their kids are better equipped to reach out to those families. We are going to need to create opportunities for small group leaders to connect more intentionally with parents and look at their small group as a little church and not as child care during the service. We need a better structure for coaching small group leaders to spiritually direct kids rather than to simply disseminate religious information to children.
  4. We are going to have to run more of what we do like a small church rather than a megachurch. Our bigger campuses have a return rate of 10% but at our smaller campus kids are coming back at rates like 80%. It seems like for the foreseeable future people are more comfortable in smaller settings. Over the last 30 years, the people who we have looked to for direction are the kids and youth ministry experts from the largest churches in America. I know many of these people and they are amazing leaders but our solution going forward does not seem to be bigger and better but intimate and intentional.
  5. Our preaching needs to be more Biblically driven and less topically driven. The reason for this is our kids need to know what God reveals to us in his word more than cute stories and applications that are fun but not formational. Kids need fathers in the faith to proclaim Biblical truth far more than they need cool older brothers to hang with them. I am not saying our approach should be informational at the expense of being relational. What I am saying is that our approach needs to Biblical if it is to be transformational.

I know starting over sounds overwhelming because it is overwhelming. I also think that this is a great opportunity for us to re-evaluate our approach to ministry, our motivation in ministry, and ultimately what the fruit of our ministry should look at.

If we walk away from COVID unchanged by its far reaching effects in every area of life we have missed an opportunity to start over to reset and and to reevaluate what matters most.

Pastors, we can’t go back to a new normal. We shouldn’t try to keep things the same. We need to take this moment to learn how to make our churches smaller and make our ministry more personal.

How would you start over if you had too? Because I think we are going to have to do exactly that.

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.

3 Things That Need to Change About How Our Kids Worship

Most of the time when we talk about worship for kids or youth ministry its most often in the context of practical tips. What songs are hot right now? Where can I get videos for this song? Most recently can I use worship songs that have copyright for our online services during COVID-19? What we fail to ask is why we worship and are we worshiping God in the way he desires to be worshiped.

This question of how we should worship is not new. For centuries the church has referred to this question as “the regulative principle it is simply the assertion that we must worship God in the way that he has revealed himself and the way he has commanded us to worship Him in His word. We need to worship God according to Scripture. Our worship needs to be directed by Scripture. The form and the content of our worship needs to be in accord with the Bible, informed by the Bible, and warranted by the Bible. It needs to be founded in the Scriptures. That is an emphasis that is so important today.” (via RTS.org)

It seems today the questions that we ask in the arena of worship are more around production value than around the Biblical basis for the songs we sing. We need to think deeper about how our songs are forming our kids. We need to think about how our songs are painting a picture of who God is and what he has done.

Yancy, recently released a new worship album aimed at pre-school and early elementary it’s called Ready, Set, Go! It’s fantastic. Yancy’s passion for the local church and for worship is so evident in everything she does. I love that her focus is always faithful over famous. I sat down with Yancy Richmond to talk about three things in kids’ ministry worship that need to change.

Engagement Not Just Aerobics

The first thing that needs to change in kids is we have to engage kids and not just lead them in aerobics. It seems in the last six or seven years that actions in kids ministry worship have gone from something helpful to being almost the totality of the worship experience. We seem to no longer judge our worship by transformed hearts but by how many people are moving at the same time. We are all guilty of this one because it’s easier to measure how many kids are jumping, it’s much more difficult to measure how many hearts are being transformed.

I think it gives kidmin leaders a false sense of participation. To be able to step inside the room and see it bouncing up and down and think “Yeah we are winning at worship.” Motions have a time and place but somewhere along the way, we started to shove motions in every part of every single song that we do instead of when it actually makes sense and when it actually enhances that song.

Yancy

We rightly want our kids to engage but what I’ve found is that when kids do dance moves they don’t sing. When kids don’t sing they don’t memorize the words of the song that when written well will be truths from God’s word that will be forever lodged in Kids Hearts. It seems that we have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.

We have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.

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.