You are known

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You have kids from every conceivable background in your ministry, as do I. They come from all types of home-environments, faith backgrounds, and family dynamics. Likewise, they have a wide variety things they need from church. They all need to hear about Jesus’ love, the authority of scripture, the path of spiritual maturity, but outside of these cornerstone needs, your students may need wildly different things from their church home.

For all of your kids, however, there is a great need to simply be known. Church is an opportunity to reinforce their intrinsic value, to be taught how significant they are to God, and to identify and celebrate their gifts. Being known is powerful to children, and it’s simple to pull off. Here are some ways that you can remind your kids that their unique personalities and gifts are known and celebrated.

Remember their names. So simple, but it goes so far. I actually heard from a parents a few weeks back they when they visited our church for the second time, all four of their kids had their names remembered, and that stood out to them big time. Make this a priority, especially among small-group leaders. If kids have someone who can walk up and say “hi ______! How was your week?”, it communicates that they are in a place where they are safe and significant.

Celebrate their talents. If you have the opportunity to let kids worship with you, do it. At the same time, celebrate kids who memorize verses well, do well in sports, or achieve their goals in school. Anytime you notice and celebrate with a child, you communicate that their unique gifts matter, and also that God made them unique and is proud of His creation.

Acknowledge their struggles. As a minister you’ll hear about more than your share of struggles and pain. Go out of your way to remember them, so that you can follow up later. This takes extra work and intentionality, but the impact is huge. When someone shares their difficulty with you, and you follow up in a timely manner without being prompted, it communicates that they are loved and supported. Even more important, it’s a moment that shows people that the body of Christ really does offer love and support when it’s needed.

As Christians, we have the indescribable privilege of being known and loved by the all-powerful God. We also get the change to mirror that to our students. Do whatever you can to remind them that they are known by you, because it opens the door to reminding them that they are known and loved even more by their Creator!

The Limits of Theodicy

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Theodicy: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

My church is located right next to the main cemetery in town. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots at random parts of the day at military funerals, and recently I heard a mariachi band playing for at least 20 minutes. In many ways, our location is fitting, because one of the chief roles of the church is to walk alongside people who are in the midst of pain and grief.

This leads me to the issue of theodicy – trying to figure out how evil and pain can co-exist with a perfectly good God. This question lies near the heart of most theologies. Open and Relational theism (which I encountered heavily in college) posits that God is not responsible for evil because He has set aside his ability to know everything for the sake of maintaining our freedom. Christians whose theology leans more toward the reformed camp place their focus on the knowledge of God, trusting in God’s incredible knowledge and plan. No matter what your theology is, holding the the goodness of God in contrast to the evil present on earth is a challenge. It’s a question every person of faith wrestles with. Every pastor has heard questions like, “why did God let this happen?”, and has earnestly hoped for an answer.

I used to want to find an answer for that question. I still find myself looking for a justification when someone comes to me reeling. However, I’ve stopped believing I can articulate an answer for the pain. I haven’t stop believing there is one, but I doubt I can find it, and I doubt even more that I could articulate it to somebody who is grieving.

I’ve become skeptical for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, for all the philosophical and Biblical arguments about an all-encompassing theodicy, I can’t say I’ve encountered one in scripture. In fact, I believe much of the debate stems from the fact that all we see in scripture are hints of God’s reasoning behind narrow events. We can learn much from Job, but it’s a stretch to call it a complete theodicy that applies to all. Neither can the travails and triumphs of Paul, David or any number of Biblical figures be construed as a rationalization for God’s goodness in the midst of all the earth’s injustice. Simply put, Scripture seems to give more glimpses of God’s thinking than an actual theology of suffering.

In addition to what I’ve seen scripturally, there’s another reason I lean toward a very humble theodicy. The truth is, when people are hurting, they often ask for a sense of balanced outcomes. They are hunting for something that tells them “the x amount of pain you feel is balanced by y amount of beneficial consequences“. The truth is that most of the time such equations are not visible to us. The fact is, it’s exceedingly rare to see so much good come out tragedy that the person afflicted comes to believe it was all worthwhile. Even when good comes from our pain, we find ourselves asking if there could have been a better, less painful way to see the good results.

And this leads to the third reason I’m skeptical of theodicy. It’s seeking a rational answer to a deeply human question. When we suffer, we ask for a rational reason, but what we’re truly seeking is emotional healing. It’s natural to think that if we could grasp the “deeper reason” behind our pain then we would find emotional restoration. It’s natural to think, but it’s not true. Pain defies our rationality, reasons and expectations, it is not explained, it is endured.

Here’s the only answer I can find to grief. We don’t get the answers we want 99% of the time from God, but we do get his presence. God doesn’t tend to answer us when we yell at Him to justify Himself, but the Holy Spirit remains. This is crucial for us as ministers, because it’s a reminder to remain humble. It’s a reminder that our efforts to talk our congregants through the pain they feel will likely fall short, but it’s also a reminder that God’s presence, and the presence of the church is usually God’s bandage for our wounds. That’s all we really have to offer – presence, love, and grace.

In the face of tragedy, our attempts at theodicy will always fall short. God’s presence, and ours alongside, is what can actually bring peace and strength. I’ve come to believe that in this life, that must be enough.

AHA Review

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A few weeks back I was given a free copy of AHA by Kyle Idleman to review. Here goes!

Of all the parables in scripture, I don’t think any resonate as universally as the parable of the prodigal son. Simply put, this parable is the Gospel, and everyone can relate to both the both the younger and older son. The universal beauty of this parable has led to it being explored by some great Christian thinkers (This is a personal favorite, so is this). Into the genre of books inspired by this parable comes the book AHA by Kyle Idleman. Idleman is a teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, and he looks at the parable and asks what creates “aha” moments of life change. To simplify, he breaks it down into three necessary components; awakening to our true state, honesty about where we are and what we need to do, and action.

From the outset, AHA is incredibly readable. I think one of it’s strengths is that it is written by a teaching pastor, and in many ways each chapter reads like a sermon. Thankfully, they’re enjoyable, engaging sermons. Idleman definitely has a gift for telling compelling stories, and even on the page he does a great job reeling you in and keeping you engaged.

To me, Idleman’s breezy, accessible style is the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. While AHA is easy to dive into, it lacks some of the emotive punch that you’ll find from Keller or Nouwen. I found it to be inspiring and encouraging, but when I put it down it didn’t ring in my ears or my heart as much as some other books on the prodigal son.

Nonetheless, I definitely think AHA is worth reading, especially if you may find yourself teaching on the parable of the prodigal son. Idleman does a great job communicating what a life-changing moment looks like, and his perspective and insights are well worth the price of admission. You’ll come away with a fresh insight on how God changes lives, and some inspiring ideas to draw from when you teach on this parable. Check it out, and share your thoughts below!

What kids need to know about the Bible

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The overarching goal of children’s ministry is to provide kids with the encounters, relationships and knowledge that lead to a lifelong faith. Obviously, there are more aspects of robust faith than can ever be enumerated. However, starting today I thought I’d go over some of the basic knowledge I’m hoping our kids leave our ministry with, starting with the Bible.

After 12 years of church/Sunday School, the odds are that many of your kids will have attained a great deal of knowledge about the Bible. Even if they weren’t trying, if they spend enough time in church they’ll probably leave with a fair amount of Bible know-how. And that’s great, but random bits of Biblical knowledge are typically less than effective unless they’re tethered to some basic foundational knowledge.

With that in mind, here are some key truths our students need to understand if they’re going to be able to apply the Bible wisely across the span of their entire lives.

It’s infallible – because it reflects the nature of God

When it comes to the the doctrine of infallibility, it’s easy to get caught up in questions about specific words, meanings and translations. However, this tendency bypasses what actually makes scripture trustworthy – the instigator. We can trust scripture because (a) it is inspired by a perfect and infallible God (Exodus 15:11) and (b) God promises that it will always accomplish what he intends it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). When it comes to trusting in the efficacy and reliability of Scripture, we can trust that it is a reflection of God Himself. If we believe that God is holy, unchanging and infallible, then it makes sense to believe the same thing about the scriptures that our faith is built upon.

It tells a big story

I love that there are so many children’s ministry curriculum options that walk through the entire range of Scripture. This is vital because it’s so easy to view the Bible as a collection of largely disconnected stories and moral lessons. It’s so easy to get familiar with the specific trees and have no idea that they are a part of a larger forest. As we introduce our kids to God’s Word, it’s important to give them an idea of how the stories they are learning are part of God’s overall plan of redemption and restoration. Remind your students that, no matter where you are studying, you can see the continual unfolding of God’s redemptive plan!

It’s a living book

There are a lot of powerful books in the world, books that have the power to change lives. However, the Bible stands apart from all of them, because it’s not a book that has power in isolation. What makes Scripture powerful is the fact that God’s Spirit actively illuminates it to us. God uses his word and His Spirit to speak to us exactly where we’re at (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13). This is vital for kids to grasp because our goal should be to see them not only know Scripture, but to be practiced in hearing the Spirit speak through it. God’s active Spirit is what makes the Bible truly alive.

To finish it off, we all want our kids to leave our programs with a love for the Bible. The best thing we can do as children’s ministers is make sure we provide a solid foundation for understanding what Scripture is, and what makes is unique. That way the knowledge that our kids acquire in children’s ministry and beyond has a healthy foundation to be built upon.

What about you? What do you think kids need to know about the Bible? How can we best share it with them?

Find your hardest-working leaders. Then ask them to do more

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Yesterday was a crazy kind of day. I had a couple of unplanned meetings, a trip to visit a kid in the hospital (he’s doing better!), and then Awana. It was the kind of day that could have gone really haywire were it not for some very competent leaders.

When it comes to leading others, especially volunteers, we sometimes have a desire to spread the work out as evenly as possible, so we avoid burning our leaders out. It makes sense, but I’d suggest the opposite. The key to getting the most out of your leaders is to identify the ones who are the most dedicated, and ask them to do more. Why?

  • Odds are they will be excited to take on a bigger responsibility, because they’re passionate about your ministry. If they’re already going above and beyond, they’ve bought into your vision, and they’ll be excited about taking it further.
  • You’ll actually build more loyalty, not less. This is because they’ll have a larger part to play, and more opportunities to see how much their time makes an impact.
  • It gives you more face time with them, which gives you the chance to pour more into your highest performing leaders. It also allows you to better support them if they are struggling at home or at church.
  • Finally, the risk of burning them out is actually quite small, so long as you keep your lines of communication open. If you are supportive and communicative with your key leaders, they’re more likely to come to you if they’re feeling over-committed. This gives you the chance to dial back their commitment without losing them entirely, plus it gives them the chance to know that they are valued and supported.

It’s always great to find new leaders to fill your empty roles. However, the leaders you’re looking for may already be in your ministry, killing it in a smaller role. Look around at your leader pool, and see if you’ve got some great leaders ready for a bigger job!

“Fight” by Preston Sprinkle (book review)

FightI personally believe that we evangelicals are in the midst of a time of self-examination. For all intents and purposes the days of “culture wars” are fading away, and we’re either re-examining our theology, or the place we want it to merit in the realm of public life. This is a good thing.

One of the topics I’m hearing discussed with more frequency is the evangelical worldview concerning violence, especially warfare. Again, this is a good thing. Evangelicals largely supported American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which have turned into long and complicated engagements. The past 10+ years has been a humbling reminder of the pain and unpredictability of war, and it’s caused many Christians to look again at what Scripture teaches us about militarism, self-defense and violence.

I have wanted to dive into this topic as well, so recently I purchased and read Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. Overall, I found this book to be incredibly helpful and thought-provoking. Sprinkle’s dedicated to the text of Scripture above all else, and he does an admirably thorough job of winding through Scripture from beginning to end, trying to illuminate the character of God. It’s not a perfect book (I can only think of one of those), but even in the parts where I found myself disagreeing or unsure, Sprinkle consistently caused me to take a hard look at my cultural and theological presuppositions and see how they lined up with the Bible’s actual teaching.

Parts I loved

  • As previously mentioned, Sprinkle meticulously examines a large amount of Scripture. Fight isn’t an emotive treatise, it’s a careful and thorough survey of Scriptural and historical teaching.
  • Sprinkle’s examination of the New Testament is powerful. He makes an incredibly compelling case for his assertion that Christians are called to imitate Christ, who didn’t resort to violence even when unjustly attacked.
  • Sprinkle doesn’t shy away from contrary Bible passages or challenging real-world scenarios. Even when I disagreed with his lens, I appreciated that he didn’t duck challenges.
  • Sprinkle goes beyond Scripture, also including an overview of the beliefs and writings of early church leaders. This very much strengthens his case.
  • He does well in demonstrating why this issue matters. Fight is more than a survey of Bible passages, it’s a sermon in book form about the life we are called to live and the savior we’re called to emulate. He rightly points out some American evangelical blind spots (e.g. drone warfare, interventionism), as well as their consequences.
  • Sprinkle does a great job pointing out that we are members of God’s kingdom first, before being members of any other. That’s a simple point, but it’s easy to leave it out of our daily lives. I found myself convicted on this point.

Parts I questioned

  • For me, the hardest part of Fight to digest was Sprinkle’s analysis of the Old Testament, especially Joshua and Judges. Sprinkle writes that these passages are more descriptive than prescriptive (which I believe is true).  Personally, I still struggle to reconcile the seeming green light for violence with the radical forgiveness of Jesus. That’s my theological hang-up, not Sprinkle’s. I think he does the best job I’ve seen at reconciling the conquest with the peaceful teachings of the NT. I guess I was hoping for some elixir that would make these passages less difficult for me to reconcile. Again, that’s my hang-up, not a critique of Sprinkle’s scholarship.
  • Sprinkle tackles the question of whether Christians should serve in the military or police. I felt that he tried to split the middle on his answers (e.g. Christian can choose to serve as chaplains, cooks, medical professionals, but not in a role in which may involve killing others). There were some moments I admired his nuance (e.g. Christians in the police), others where I felt myself leaning toward a strong “yes/no” conclusion (Christians in the military). I can’t say I’ve settled my mind on either of these points, but the book sure gave me a lot to think about.

Key Quotes

  • I wonder how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians (mis)applied the book of Joshua to their lives.
  • Jesus advocates not for balmy passivity but for nonviolent hyperactivity soaked in stubborn love.
  • We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, extend kindness to the ungrateful, and flood evil people with mercy not because such behavior will always work at confronting injustice, but because such behavior showcases God’s stubborn delights in un-delightful people.
  • Loving your enemy. Doing good things for evil people. Never taking vengeance. Responding to violence with nonviolent love—even if it brings suffering. These are not options, but the primary character traits of those who claim to follow a crucified God.

Conclusion

Fight is a great treatment of a vital part of Christian theology. And our relation to the violence in the world around is a crucial part of our practical theology as followers of Christ. As Americans, we would be wise to look again at our cultural, historical and theological assumptions concerning violence. Fight is a superb resource to help us do exactly that.

NOTE:  I simply bought, read, and enjoyed this book. I was not asked to review it, nor did I receive anything in return for this review.

Ideas for volunteers

thanksIn children’s ministry we’re always looking to appreciate volunteers. Why? Because we need a ton of them, so we want the ones we have to stay!  Thankfully, volunteer appreciation doesn’t need to be elaborate. After all, your main goal isn’t to blow away your leaders (at least, not all the time). It’s to remind them that you notice and appreciate their contribution.

For Valentines day, we did a little thank you that worked out well. We bought a bunch of Russell Stover valentine’s chocolate bars, made a note that said how much we appreciated them, and tied them together with ribbon. Total cost – about $1 per volunteer, but they loved them! They appreciated our stab at creativity, and they loved being reminded that we were thankful for their service.

We’re trying another idea, but this one didn’t come from us, it came from Yorba Linda Friends Church. One question I asked them was how they got enough of their volunteers together for training. Their solution had been to fill their classrooms with substitutes for a Sunday, and hold a leader training/appreciation meeting during their leader’s normal hour of serving. That way they weren’t adding anything to their leaders’ calendar. We loved the idea, so we’re trying it out on March 30th. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Keep thinking of great ways to thank, equip, and invite leaders. When something works, don’t forget to pass it on!