My Mission Trip Horror Story

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about our church’s recently cancelled Ecuador mission trip, so I figured I’d try to blog about it once instead of having to tell the story multiple times. My goal here is twofold: (a) To briefly tell our mission team’s tale without throwing stones at bad actors while giving credit where credit is due; and (b) To attempt to give a Biblical response as to how you – particularly my church – should respond. 

Last year, our local church (NorthWoods Church in Evansville, Indiana) developed a strategic partnership with a local church in El Tambo (a neighborhood of Palileo), Ecuador. Our church’s goal is to send up to four mission teams per year to strengthen this local church by providing training in evangelism, discipleship and basic spiritual formation. To date, we’ve sent two teams out in March and June, and our July mission team would have been the third team we’ve sent out this year.

Our team of 13 people left our church parking lot on the afternoon of Thursday, July 12, 2018 to drive up to Indianapolis to catch an early morning flight on Friday, July 13, 2018. We had booked hotel rooms for our team at a LaQuinta near the Indianapolis airport, where the plan was to get half of a good night’s sleep then wake up way before sunrise to catch the hotel’s airport shuttle to the airport. We had tickets booked through a travel agency (that I will not name) and two different airlines (Delta and another airline that I will not name). 

My hotel room of men woke up around 4AM and headed down to the lobby to scavenge for a stray waffle or muffin prior to departure. The front desk employee informed we that the hotel staff had decided to book three cabs for our team instead of the shuttle. Seemed like no big deal at the time. Our 1st hotel room of ladies arrived down in the lobby and we rushed them into the 1st cab waiting to depart. Our 2nd hotel room of ladies (including my wife and daughter) arrived and then rushed into the 2nd cab. And then the remainder of the team waited for the 3rd cab. And waited. And waited. And waited. To her credit, the front desk employee kept calling the cab driver, who assured us he was on the way: “I’m on I-465 … I’m just around the corner … I’m almost there.”

Well … the 3rd cab never showed. Like, at all.

After over a half an hour of waiting, the hotel’s shuttle driver arrived back at the hotel from her last run. Instead of waiting for the next scheduled shuttle time, she thankfully offered to drive our stranded portion of the team to the airport. As we pulled away from the hotel for our 11 minute drive to the airport, we wife texted: “Where are you? The airport line is already huge.” My heart sank. I already knew our team might be in trouble. And I had my wife and daughter’s passports, so they could not go ahead and check in. In addition, most of our adult leaders were on the shuttle with me. 

When we finally arrived, the scene at the Delta counter was chaotic and the lines were distressingly long. Thankfully, four of the team members on the 1st two cabs were totally checked in (including luggage dropped off). Unfortunately, that was our last stroke of providence … Our trip then suffered a death of a thousand paper cuts. Many of our team had never flown before, and needed lots of assistance with check-in into the flight. Two of our team members had extremely minor name misspellings on their tickets preventing them from checking into the flight. Since we were wearing matching church team t-shirts, some of our team got pulled out the line by Delta staff and were directed to a group ticketing line (where it turns out we didn’t need to be). Then we got stuck behind an irate family with a language barrier attempting to argue with Delta staff … For at least another 30 minutes. The hostile family refused step aside from the counter after numerous requests of staff and managers. Things got heated and ugly. After some firm but polite resolve of Delta staff with this family, we finally got up to the front of the line. I managed to check in another team member (including luggage). Then, a manager started a long discussion with our check-in desk staff member about the previous family who was still causing troubles to the staff. My stomach dropped and I turned to my team and said: “We are not going to make this flight.” To add insult to injury, we then learned that a schedule change had been made to our flight, and it was leaving 15 minutes earlier than our original schedules showed … And we received no notice of the schedule change.  

The Delta staff were extremely compassionate about our situation. The Delta manager offered to waive change fees and get us on a flight for the next day to Ecuador. A note was put into the Delta system showing the Delta manager’s flexibility. A Delta check-in desk person started to work on rescheduling our flight for the next day … Until everything abruptly ground to a halt. It turns out the tickets were actually owned by another airline. We were advised to call the other airline about our situation. So we huddled back at LaQuinta and started to make some calls. And the other airline was not compassionate whatsoever. And our travel agent had no pull with the airline. So we were labelled “no shows” for not boarding our scheduled flights, and were given one impossible option to proceed. So we bailed on the trip and journeyed back home.   

Let me give two important shout outs. Delta Airlines was awesome to us. They were perfectly willing to bend over backward to get us to our proposed destination. They also rush shipped our checked luggage back to Evansville at no additional cost. The word of the day for Delta was “compassion.” In addition, LaQuinta Hotel was absolutely fantastic. They offered our teams free rooms for another day if necessary, and let us hang out (and sleep) for a long time in their breakfast nook. They let us check back into rooms of which we previously checked out so our kids could sleep. They also waived some of their parking fees.  These two organizations were blessings to us, so kudos to them. 

So what should you do as a response to my mission trip nightmare?

Go. Tell others about Jesus.

What?!?

Yes. You read that correctly.

Go. Tell others about Jesus.

Serve.

And – most importantly – RISK.

Following Christ is going to have risks – including every mission opportunity. During our church’s March mission trip to Ecuador, one church member had a last-minute medical procedure and was unable to participate. During our church’s June mission trip, our entire team missed a connection by a matter of minutes, and was stranded in Atlanta for 2 days minus luggage. And our entire July team missed a flight altogether. 

In the grand scheme of life, these are all minor risks and inconveniences. No one’s life was placed in danger. No one faced actual persecution for their faith. Everyone eventually got their luggage back. Some people wore their underwear longer than usual and probably needed to reapply their deodorant. Someone probably needed to buy a toothbrush. Some people slept on couches and some slept on uncomfortable airport chairs. People got tired and grumpy. Everyone had to rush down a few meals, but no one went hungry. No one was ripped from the arms of their family. Everyone came home. Minor. Stuff. So. What.

In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus tells a brief parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to a really expensive pearl. When a merchant happens upon this pearl, he sells everything that he has to acquire the pearl as his own. There is no equivocation or questioning of the merchant … The beauty of the pearl compels him to sell all. The message of this parable is remarkably simple: Christ is more valuable than anything else we can ever stumble upon. Offering the remission of sins and power over the grave, the hope of the cross is immeasurably valuable. And if we hold fast to anything as more valuable than Christ, we are fools worthy of shame. Don’t equivocate or question … Do whatever it takes for the sake of Christ.

Unfortunately, we do tend to hold our own comfort and convenience as more valuable than Christ. I’ve heard so many excuses about why they can’t go serve on mission. People who are afraid of starting conversations with others. People who are afraid of weird toilets. People who won’t push the boundaries of their diets. People who can’t detach from their smart phones. People who falsely prioritize sports, music and extracurricular activities. As C.S. Lewis prophesied, we truly have become a people who’d rather play in mud muddies instead of taking a all expense paid cruise. We’d rather we surrounded by iPhones, Netflix and Oreos instead of sacrificing a week of vacation to share Christ. Boo hiss. 

So here’s why I’m really writing this blog today: I don’t want anyone to hear our group’s travel horror story and think that Jesus is not worth it. 

He is worth it. 

He’s worth every nuisance and inconvenience. He’s worth losing sleep. He’s worth smelling bad. He’s worth skipping a meal or so. He’s worth losing your toothbrush. He’s worth a divorce with your smart phone and Netflix AND Hulu. He’s worth using a toilet without a seat. He’s worth microbes and stomach worms. He’s worth separation from your family. He’s worth people reviling you for the sake of His name. And he’s worth sacrificing your very life for the sake of the kingdom of God. 

So believers, pour out your life. Don’t hold anything back. Give up your puny little gods of convenience and comfort. Go. Risk it all – even if it costs your reputation, your security and even your very life. Don’t stop going of the sake of the kingdom. 

I know that I won’t stop. And neither should you. I’ll travel for His sake again. I’ll gladly and joyfully go again. He is so worth it. He is worth pouring out every drop of my life. I’d do it again and again. Oh, my Jesus is my treasure. And I love Him so. 

So my question to you is this: Is Jesus really worth it? 

Yes.

He is.

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The Dirty Little Secret Your Youth Minister Is Afraid To Tell You

There’s a dirty little secret that your local youth minister probably isn’t telling you. But you really need to know about it.

No, it has nothing to do with the correlation of youth minister beard size to successful student ministry growth … Or finding the proper place to buy the perfect flannel shirt to match your skinny jeans … Or that youth ministers actually work more than one hour per week!

When youth ministers huddle in their hipster coffee bars, our discussions always seem to turn the issue of family busyness. And we’re not talking trash about busy families. To the contrary, our struggle is that we genuinely want to fulfill our calling to teach the next generation of believers how to follow Christ … But we’ve got less of a piece of the pie for teaching. Kids are involved in multiple extracurricular activities and sporting seasons. Marching band and show choir have turned into year long activities. Baseball season has now drifted into travel ball, summer league, all-star season and extra-super-special secret bonus season. The parking lots of kids sports parks are now overflowing with soccer mom vans on Wednesday nights and even Sunday mornings. While we once had three hours per week with kids and students, we now have about three hours a month. We genuinely care about your kids’ spiritual development, but there’s simply less time to impact your kids with the Gospel.

Research bears out this common frustration. In 2016, the Barna Group conducted a study of youth ministers on behalf of Youth Specialties and YouthWorks. The study simply asked youth ministers what was the most common struggle that they had with youth ministry. The resounding answer given was not difficult parents, lack of volunteers, lack of pizza money or selecting the right Starbucks drink. To the contrary, 86% of youth ministers said that busyness of students was their top struggle in youth ministry.

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If you’re a pastor who’s following overall church trends, this finding really isn’t that shocking. The number one reason why overall church attendance is flagging is actually frequency of attendance. In layman’s terms, church attendance is generally down because families simply aren’t attending church as often as they used to. During my distant Generation X childhood, most families in Southern Baptist life attended church at least three times per week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. If you really wanted to earn brownie points with the pastor, you also showed up for Tuesday night visitation too. Today, the average family attends church several times per month.

Here’s the thing: Most of our ministerial families struggle with busyness too. We totally get it. As youth ministers with growing families, we’re not immune. This year, my daughter signed up for school soccer, and my wife and I became sports parents. When the schedule came out, we cringed. Half of the games were on Wednesdays. Coincidentally, our church’s family ministry program is on Wednesday nights. While my daughter wound up missing most of the Wednesday night games, we suddenly found our other evenings increasingly more complicated with practices, sports store shopping and a post-game pizza party. It was a new level of crazy for our family. Even on the average day outside of soccer season, I do feel slightly imbalanced trying to pick up my kid from school while juggling a visit with a sick church member, discipleship times with students or volunteers, and buying supplies for the next family ministry event. So many youth ministers feel quite uncomfortable – and possibly hypocritical – talking to parents about busyness, because a rat-race in which we’re currently mired.

But here’s why the issue of family busyness is really important: Statistics bear out that our kids’ faith in largely determined by their parents’ faith. In 2014, Lifeway Research found that four factors that were the most predictive in determining whether teenagers stayed in church (instead of dropping out):

  • I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life (prior to 18).
  • My parents were still married to each other and both attended church (prior to 18).
  • The pastor’s sermons were relevant to my life (prior to 18).
  • At least one adult from church made a significant investment in me personally and spiritually (between 15 and 18).

For youth ministers, this data means we need to make sure that our programs aren’t just a “holding tank with pizza,” and we need to actively seek to form discipleship relationships between kids and adults in the church. For parents, this data affirms the old youth ministry adage: Committed Christian families are far more likely to produce (but not guaranteed to produce) committed Christian kids. Time in a local church with our kids is the wisest spiritual investment that a family can make.

Unfortunately, many youth ministers and parents treat the family busyness problem as an attractional issue. In other words, the solution often proposed is that churches need to do bigger and shinier programs – especially in comparison to the other church on the block – to attract more young people to church: Hold a lock-in at the local Skyzone trampoline park … Have an twinkie chugging competition … Give away a Xbox One X … Hire a new younger, “relatable” and handsome youth minister. Gimmicks. If we can just “wow” families with our delightful programs, maybe they’ll pay more attention to Jesus. Don’t me wrong: I thoroughly believe student ministry should be fun, relevant, interactive and engaging to be successful … But if we’re struggling to make Christ more attractive than peewee flag football then we’ve already lost.

Instead of an attractional issue, the problem is a treasure issue. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells an extremely short – but critically important – parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Simply put, our times and our schedules are driven by what Christ is really worth to us. Is Christ really worth more than a $6 plastic participation trophy? I know that most vaguely church-going Christians would confess: “Of course Jesus is worth more!” But what happens when the choices that we make with our time and our money don’t match that confession? And if we’re really honest, what if the “other stuff” actually makes us happier and more content than Christ? Is Christ really worth more?

Yes … I’m really asking. Is Christ really worth more? Honestly, I struggle here too.

This semester, I had a middle schooler talk to me about a conflict that he had between our Wednesday night church activities and football practice. He had been struggling with what to do. His coach told him that he couldn’t miss practices to be on the team … But he felt that God was calling him to attend church more faithfully. His parents encouraged him to pray about the situation, make the godly decision and talk with the coach. Nervously, he told his coach that he’d decided to attend church on Wednesday instead of practice. Surprisingly, the coach didn’t have a negative reaction. It turns out the coach was a believer and supported his decision to skip Wednesday evening practices. I’m proud of the decision that this young man made. But I also recognize that solid Christian parents have taught and encouraged him, too.

Think about it this way: If there are 168 hours in a week, we simply aren’t going to produce lifelong faith in our kids with 1 hour a week (optimistically) sitting in a worship service. In comparison to the 20.1 hours per week that the average teenager spends in front of a screen, 1 hour per week is laughable. Compared to the the 5.3 hours per week that the average teenager spends in sports, 1 hour per week is negligible. More importantly, does one hour out of 168 really demonstrate that Christ is our treasure?

So am I saying that your family should attend church more? Absolutely yes. A million times over. Please attend church more. Make Sundays sacrosanct. Start regularly attending Sunday School. Join a small group. Participate and lead in your church’s family ministry program. Engage in one-on-one discipleship. Volunteer and serve as a family in service project or missions opportunity.

Drop some activity from your life that has no eternal significance. Limit your kids to one or two extracurricular activities. Don’t do exhausting, never-ending sports seasons. Don’t let programs dictate your calendar. Push back on pushy, picky or punitive band leaders, coaches and choir directors. Remember it’s just a hobby and not a career.

Bring your faith into the home too. Do a family devotion time. Talk to your kids about your faith. Ask follow up questions about Sunday sermons and youth group teaching. Volunteer and serve as a family in your community on behalf of Christ.

Just use your time to genuinely demonstrate that Christ is really your treasure. If our kids’ faith hinges on the commitment of our faith, then we owe it to our kids to make our faith a priority.

And that’s a great resolution to ring in 2018.

The Most Dangerous Lie Christian Parents Tell Their Kids

The biggest lie that I ever told my daughter was the cover-up of her pet fish’s death.

When my daughter started asking about having her first pet, we really weren’t interested in something high maintenance. I’m allergic to most pet dander anyway, so that (mercifully) ruled out most cats and dogs. And – no – I’m not buying one of those expensive, inbred and ridiculously named hypoallergenic dogs either. So when my daughter begged for a pet, a fish tank seemed like a safe, low-maintenance angle. Upon the seemingly expert advice of the teenage, acne-faced Petsmart worker, we went all in for the best tank, filter and variety of fish available. We proudly set up our tank in the front window of the living room, and our daughter proceeded to name her fish after her beloved Teen Titans Go characters: Starfire … Trigon … Raven … Cyborg.

So you probably already see where this story is going.

Raven died. My daughter’s favorite. A bloated corpse bobbing lifelessly.

Providentially, I discovered Raven’s floating corpse while coming home from work on lunch break. Immediately, an unwholesome thought came across my mind: Gwen’s not home from school yet … Replace the fish. So easy I’d seen it done on TV over a million times. I checked my watch … Barely enough time to run to PetSmart. Fortunately, Petsmart had a reasonable facsimile of the deceased, so I was able to get Raven 2.0 in place before my unsuspecting kid came home.

Now my lie began as a lie of omission. I never told her about the fate of O.G. Raven. However, my daughter started to remark that Raven somehow looked “different.” And then I assured her that – yes – Raven did magically develop a hunchback, bigger eyes and red colored gills. It’s puberty or something like that.

Alas, our fish story doesn’t have a happy ending. After the miraculous, Lazarus-like recovery of Raven, we wound up committing fish genocide. Never seeking to be upstaged or outdone, I bought an “even better” filter for the tank … And the sheer power of that filter sucked all of our poor sickly fish into its deadly rotating gears. As I scraped out the shredded pieces of my daughter’s pets from the filter gears, I felt like the living incarnation of the Jigsaw killer from the Saw movies.

We now have a guinea pig, who mercifully seems harder to accidentally murder while we’re away at work.

Parents, we often tell seemingly “harmless” lies to protect our kids. I’m not advocating lying (*ahem* … it’s a sin) … I’m just saying it’s unfortunately commonplace in our parental play book. We tell our kids that Santa is watching when they’re beating the snot out of each other around the Thanksgiving table. We tell our kids that the TV is broken when that annoying Caillou cartoon is about to come on. We tell our kids that Chuck E Cheese is only for birthday parties and not daily dining. We tell our kids that the dead dog moved to a farm in California. To borrow from the Millennial jargon, there are just times when “I can’t even” with these kids.

So why do we lie to our kids? In a true Machiavellian manner, we believe that the ends justify the means when “white lies” are involved … That there is a greater good to be served by leaving our kids in an alternate reality … That keeping our last frayed ends of sanity together is more valuable than our kids desires … That we’re protecting our kids by keeping hard truths out of their reach … That our kids are more well-behaved and compliant amidst the fiction. White lies are the parental “easy button.” And we largely lie because we’re selfish.

Amidst the white lies about chicken nuggets, nose picking and kids cartoons, I believe the biggest lie that Christian parents tell their kids is this: “You are saved by works.”

Allow me to explain.

Over the past twenty years of student and family ministry, I have met a litany of well-meaning, Gospel-believing parents who taught their kids to believe they’re saved by some form of good works. This fractured view of salvation stems from a lifetime of poor Biblical interpretation, whereby we distill virtually every Bible story into legalistic anecdotes about well-behaved children. We inform our kids that we shouldn’t sin like Adam and Eve did. We tell our kids that God rescues good people like Noah. We tell our kids to obey the 10 Commandments. We tell our kids that we should model our lives after King David.

Of course, we know these overly-simplified interpretations of Scripture are wrong. All have sinned like Adam and Eve (Romans 3:23) … Noah was actually saved by grace … No one can obey the Law (Romans 3:10) … King David was an adulterer and cold-blooded murderer.

So why do we perpetuate these hermeneutical nightmares amongst our kids?!? Here’s the thing for many parents: We’d much rather have compliant kids than Gospel-centered kids. We’d much rather tell the kid throwing a fit over Goldfish crackers that God desires moral, compliant children. We’d rather tell the hostile child who just clocked another kid that God hates bad people. It’s often to our advantage to tell our kids this “white lie”: We want our kids to behave. And the fear of God often produces compliance. A little fear of Hell produces a lot of hustle. And thus we distill our version of God into a “cosmic Santa Claus”: God gives good gifts to good people … And God consigns the really bad people to Hell … So you’d better act like a good person because God’s see you when you’re sleeping. Shamefully, most parents even realize their teaching contradicts the Gospel, but their immediate need for well-mannered children overshadows the eternal consequences.

All too often, I’ve seen the long-term damage done from this reductionistic philosophy in the hearts of teenagers. I’ve met way too many church-going kids that believe that “good people” who attend church regularly, come from Norman Rockwell-esque “good homes” and serve faithfully in church go to Heaven. Other kids believe that a defining life moment, such as a baptism, a “magic prayer,” a church camp, a mission trip or a date written in their gift Bible, is the ultimate evidence of their salvation. And many church-raised Millennials simply believe in some relativistic form of universalism (“all roads lead to Heaven”). These kids are often incredulous when I try to burst their bubble and tell them they’re not saved by their “inherent goodness” … Because you don’t have any inherent goodness.

During my first season in youth ministry, I remember leading a Bible study that included Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” As we probed deeper into the meaning of that passage, one high school senior seemed shocked at Jesus’ words: “Are you telling me that I have to love Jesus more than my parents?” As she stood up from her chair, she was visibly exasperated at the words of Jesus and demanding my attention. As I affirmed Jesus’ words and began to share the Gospel, she became more agitated, giving an unsolicited overview of her unorthodox beliefs about Christianity: “I believe that the real Jesus really wouldn’t tell us to do that. Jesus loves good people from good families. Jesus would never ask me to do that.” She walked out. As I interacted with her later, I began to realize this senior had been sold the Gospel of “being a good person from a good family.” And if the Gospel was based on God’s grace instead of our goodness, then a recently deceased family member might not be in Heaven after all. Tough stuff.

Sadly, this experience is commonplace instead of an aberration. Recently, I took a young person to camp whose entire definition of salvation was based on “doing better” and “trying harder” to please God. When this person was confronted with passages in the Bible about salvation by grace, their response was essentially: “I’m sorry that I don’t understand the Bible well … I’ll try to do better to please God.” (*face palm*) Speaking the Gospel to this young person was like speaking pig Latin … The Gospel was both familiar and shockingly unrecognizable. And that’s the unfortunate truth for many kids: They’re spent some much time and been so affirmed doing the “good kid” routine in church that they’re inoculated to the genuine Gospel of grace. They have a hard time distinguishing the facsimile from the truth.

Kids who trust in good families.

Kids who trust in being in church every time the doors are open.

Kids who trust in magic water in the baptismal.

Kids who trust in the abra-kadabra magic words of front-altar prayers.

Kids who trust the scales of good / bad behavior will tip in their favor.

Kids who mistakenly don’t trust in Christ alone.

So here’s my simple encouragement to parents: Have the spiritual guts to ask your kids one crucial question: “Why did Jesus save you?” If your kids give an answer that reeks of the foul smell of good works or legalism, then you need to lovingly confront your kids with the Gospel. No greater Biblical lesson can be taught to our kids than Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You may wind up having to undo some spiritual damage that you’ve unwittingly done to your kids’ theology, but the long-term benefits are critical to your child’s salvation.

Because we are saved by grace. We are not saved by good behavior, church attendance, baptisms, magic prayers, service in church or names on church rolls. We are saved because Jesus mercifully loved evil wretches like us. That’s why His grace is amazing.

Tell your kids the truth: Following Christ is all about grace.

A Straightjacket of Darkness: On the Pastor, Depression & Loneliness

So let me tell you about the first time I considered quitting pastoral ministry.

Fresh out of Seminary, I was pastoring a small church south of Indianapolis, and the weatherman was predicting an ice-storm on Sunday afternoon. I mean, the slogan of the TV network was the “most trusted name in news,” right? So slick roads and downed power lines was a rock-solid, 100% certain prediction. Take it to the bank. So I did any rational pastor who was raised in the winter-averse climate of central Virginia would do: I cancelled Sunday evening services. You might already see where my story is going: Go figure, the weatherman turned out to be completely wrong … No ice … In fact, no precipitation at all! That was the day I learned that weathermen actually consult magic 8 balls as their primary source.

Over the next few hours, I was inundated with angry and hostile phone calls from church members regarding the cancellation of our Sunday evening services. Keep in mind, my cell phone number was not published in any church directory or bulletin … It was just circulating amongst the angry mob of pot stirrers. The comments were surprisingly terse and abusive:

  • “Who gave you authority to cancel services?!?”
  • “Our last pastor never cancelled services.”
  • “Are you enjoying your evening off?”
  • “I’m going to bring this up at the next business meeting.”
  • And my personal favorite: “What am I supposed to do this evening now that services are cancelled?!?”

That following week, a representative of the peanut gallery of angry people strolled into my office, plopped down on my brown futon and impertinently shut the door. I knew by reputation that this gentleman considered himself the unofficial church spokesman, but he served in no official capacity in the church. Of course, I already knew how the “elder statesman” felt about me … At the end of each Sunday service, he would simultaneously gruffly shake my hand and grade my sermons from an incredibly generous scale of “not good” to “needs some work.”

So the spokesman opened up our impromptu meeting by asking if he could pray. I appreciated the move until I actually heard the prayer: “Father, please give me the right words to say, and please show Pastor Matt how wrong he is.” He then negotiated with the tactfulness of Tony Soprano: “Well, Matt … You’ve taken a good shot at this whole pastoring thing, but it’s probably time for you to pack up and leave.”

Honestly, I was too stunned to remember how that conversation ended, but I do remember a bleak sadness overtaking me. Of course, I wasn’t going to quit because one well-known church bully was rude, but the whole interaction still really hurt. I mean, I’d just moved my family half-way across to the country to be abused about the cancellation of one Sunday evening service?!? And the attacks seemed so personal … So non-sensical … So petty. Instantly, I become neurotic about my standing with the congregation: Did the people of this church really want me gone? … Was I making any difference for the kingdom of God? … Was any of this pastoring thing really worth the stress to my family and my personal health?

Over the course of my ministry as a lead pastor, this incident was not the last time that I felt like throwing in the towel:

  • When I was criticized for buying a “luxury vehicle” (a 2012 Kia Soul).
  • When church members told me I made too much money.
  • When a church member dropped by my house on Sunday afternoon to gift a 1956 Baptist Hymnal to me with the suggestion that I learn about “real worship music.”
  • When I returned from vacation to find an anonymous note was left in my office door giving me a letter grade for every aspect of my ministry. (Worship music was apparently an “F”.)
  • When friends quietly quit the church and refused to tell me why.
  • When people write thinly veiled complaints about you on social media.
  • When my wife was angrily confronted for not attending a sunrise service.
  • When I heard the words: “I’m just not being fed by you, pastor.”

Please know I’m not dredging up my dirty laundry for the sake of having a personal pity party. I bring up my background to make a point: Pastoring can be hazardous to pastors and their families. The life of the pastor is the ultimate glass house, where people feel strangely compelled to unnervingly leer inside and make judgmental comments about everything from your vacation time to your Sunday morning ties. And if you can ignore the running commentary, there’s also the pressure of an ever-expanding litany of time-consuming job responsibilities ranging from home visitation to janitorial services. In moments of temporary insanity, the pressure of the success/failure of the church seems to weigh on your shoulders, and you wind up working 70-80 hours per week to the point of completely ignoring your spouse and family.

I don’t want to spend a ton of time regurgitating statistics on burnout and depression in pastoral ministry. Those statistics are readily out there on the good old interwebs here and here. Of course, Ed Stetzer rightfully cautions in his 2015 Christianity Today article that many of the over-blown statistics are overblown, outdated and exaggerated. Fortunately, I know many pastors that have fantastic relationships with encouraging churches. On the other hand, I’ve also heard way too many horror stories from discouraged pastors about nightmare churches and soul-crushing heartbreaks. Case in point: Most of the folks that I started Seminary with ten years ago are no longer in ministry. Let that sink in. Every year, I seem to witness more friends or acquaintances drop off the map of ministry.

However, I do want to talk about how the experience impacted me: I sank into a stubborn depression that constricted me like a straightjacket. Depression is not simply an emotion of sadness easily cured by “getting happy” or “cheering up.” Depression is a tenacious, unrelenting black cloud of hopelessness that cripples you with waves of fear, bitterness and melancholy. I obsessed about my failures, and pushed myself to work longer hours to please more people. In utter paranoia, I began to worry about trivial minutiae and to parse every conversation to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night. I felt hopeless to change my situation. I turned to food and worldly pleasures in an attempt to try to feel happy. I felt like I had no one to trust. No one possibly understood how I felt. I wanted nothing more than to hide behind the thick curtains of my house and forget the outside world. Life seemed impossible. Withdrawal from the world seemed far more palatable.

The secret language of depression is loneliness. Depression is an estrangement from the world. The pain of depression drives us to avoidance and escapism from suffering. Perpetual, unrelenting bleakness and lack of hope motivates us to wall ourselves off from any potential enemies – including those that care for and love us. We believe that if we simply hide from pain then future pain won’t come. While we may desire friendship, we’re also extraordinarily cautious about the downsides of opening up: Rejection … Ridicule … Inauthenticity. I worried that sharing my troubles would simply lead to a multiplication of my trouble … And I just wanted the trouble to end. So I kept the numbness to myself and found solace in simply being alone.

In the midst of my hopelessness, an odd Bible verse was my rescue: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Pastors tend to use Hebrews 10:24-25 as a legalistic paddle to spank wayward church members, but that perspective tends to blunt the overall meaning of the passage: God has given us each other for our mutual encouragement. While my sinfulness drove me to wallow in inexhaustible alienation, God brought other believers into my life that repeatedly lifted me out of the mire.

God brought other pastors who shared similar experiences into my life. If you think you’re the only pastor shot by friendly fire, you’re sadly wrong.

God brought associational leaders into my life that offering a shoulder to lean on, sage advice and offers of respite and retreat.

God eventually gave me real sustainable friendships within my local church – particularly the retired pastor of my church. (By the way, those friendships eventually included the same “elder statesman” that asked me to quit … He’d offer me a cigar every time I dropped by his house.)

God gave me a spouse that talked me off the ledge every time I felt like quitting.

But the real turning point for me is when I sought out the help of a good Biblical counselor. I discovered the root of my depression rested in a deep-seeded fear of what people thought instead of a focus on God’s inexhaustible grace for me. While it did not happen with the snap of my fingers, the fog of depression eventually lifted. The numbness deep in my bones subsided and I could finally feel again.

I prayed for God to relieve me from depression. God’s answer was putting people in my life to encourage me and to stir me up to good works. 

So here’s the point of this entire blog: If you are a pastor and you feel hopeless, depressed or even suicidal, please talk to someone. Loneliness is not God’s design for you. God has also put people in your life to encourage you too. You part of an ever-expanding family of God with the giftedness to care for you and simply listen to you.

Reach out to another pastor.

Talk with denominational leaders.

Get honest with a church member that you trust.

Be vulnerable with your spouse.

Find a solid Biblical counselor here.

Contact me at matt@northwoodschurch.org

Know that the same God who called you out of darkness and into His glorious light wants to lead you out of this darkness too.

God loved you so much that He has not left you alone.

 

What Our Graduates Really Need To Hear

So my daughter graduated from elementary school the other day. And – yes – I understand that any graduation ceremony at 5th grade means about as much as the prize tickets at Chuck-E-Cheese. But it’s cute and Instagram worthy, so cut me some slack here.

What was easily the most fascinating part of the ceremony was the graduation speeches from the kids. As I listened to rambling words of advice from kids with little life experience, I noticed how closely their words mimicked the graduation speeches of higher education. Aside from a healthy slice of “we did it,” there was also a healthy slathering of “follow your dreams” and “be true to yourself.” And as I really processed what the kids were actually trying to say, I actually winced.

If we’re honest, most of the stuff spewed out in graduation speeches is self-help gobbledygook worthy of an episode of Dr. Phil. And it’s got very little grounding in Scripture. Instead, much of what passes for solid graduation advice actually resembles an instruction manual for prodigals to run away from home. As Christian parents, I think it’s important to parse for our kids the well-intentioned advice that they’ll hear around graduation to turn their nose up at narrow gates of the Christian life. Our job is to point our kids higher as they leave the nest.

So let’s examine some of the common cliches heard at graduation ceremonies around the country:

  • “Follow your heart”: Ugh … For crying out loud, just don’t do this. If you follow Christ, you can’t follow your heart, your desires or your instincts. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Proverbs 28:26 says that “whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (some translations say “heart” instead of “mind” (ESV)). Indulging in our own desires is a mark of a unbeliever (Ephesians 2:3). Once we know Christ, we crucify our old selves along with our passions and desires (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:6). Following Christ inherently involves admitting our desires and heart motivations are evil and submitting to a greater glory.
  • “Follow your dreams”: Probably not what Jesus had in mind when he talks about taking up your cross and willingly dying (Matthew 16:24). In the very same verse, Jesus tells his disciples to “deny yourself.” Self-denial is virtuous … Self-indulgence not so much. Self-denial doesn’t mean that you’ll be miserable following Jesus. To the contrary, tremendous joy and true satisfaction are found when Christ is glorified (to butcher a John Piper-ism). Bonhoeffer states: “The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.” In short, following Christ is where your small worldly dreams die and gigantic Christ-centered dreams are birthed.
  • “Believe in yourself”: Pride is a wicked sense of self-importance that leads to certain destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Not only does Scripture say that pride is sinful, but also that God OPPOSES prideful people (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-8). C.S. Lewis states: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” As believers, our goal is to clothe ourselves in the humility of Christ instead of becoming puffed up, selfie-obsessed blowhards (1 Peter 5:5).
  • “Be true to yourself”: But what if you’re a dimwitted, nefarious jerkface?!? Who wants to be stuck like a statue devoted to selfishness? Christianity is change (2 Corinthians 5:17). Being conformed to the image of Christ is the essence of the Christian life (Romans 8:29).
  • “Live life to the fullest”: The carpe diem philosophy is grounded in Roman poetry and Robin Williams movies instead of Biblical theology. If the resurrection were not true, we’d have good reason to eat, drink and be merry … Because #yolo (see 1 Corinthians 15:32). If we’re not just destined to be worm food (a/l/a The Dead Poets Society), then we have a far greater glory for which to live. We have purpose and meaning outside of selfishness. So live your life well to the glory of God, but understand that your fullest life, which is free from sin, death, pain and regret, is found in the next life.
  • “You are the future”: I hate to break it to you guys, but the future does not revolve around you. No matter what OneRepublic and our fragile egos say. Quite literally, the future is centered around Jesus (Revelation 4). If you are a believer, YOU will be eternally focused on Jesus. Every tribe … Every nation … Every tongue will encircle the throne of Christ and worship Him forevermore. That’s pretty exciting.
  • “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”: And then you die. And what happens then?
  • “Dare to be different”: Turns out that being weird, strange and self-absorbed is pretty easy. Just ask Dr. Seuss: “I am weird, you are weird. Everyone in this world is weird. One day two people come together in mutual weirdness and fall in love.” But being different is as simple as a wardrobe change. Being weird is as easy as a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. On the other hand, being daily conformed to the image of Christ … THAT takes a huge miracle. Not everyone can follow Christ or imitate Christ … It takes the Word of God and the power of the Spirit. And that’s what the world really needs. Dare to be like Jesus.
  • “Make a difference”: To a generation of slacktivists and hashtag warriors, changing the world behind a keyboard seems like the highest calling. However, we’d do well to remember Jesus’ words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In Jesus’ extended metaphor about the vine and branches in John 15, Jesus makes one simple but powerful point: Dead branches don’t grow grapes. Similarly, people apart from Christ can’t accomplish anything … Nothing … Nada … Zip … Not even a teensy, little bit. Consequentiality comes from Christ. While we can’t accomplish anything on our own, Christ in us can accomplish great things. Surrender and let him work through you.

But let me address one more fallacy that Christian parents believe that’s not found in any graduation speech: “My kids will stay in church after they’ve graduated.” While I think that most Christian parents understand the abysmal dropout statistics regarding kids in the church, they don’t think that it’ll happen to their own kid. I think that Christian parents need to understand that their role as disciplers moves into an arguably more difficult (and frustrating) phase in the teenage years. Our kids that used to run to our arms at the slightest skinned knee now seem content to shoot down Biblical advice with the precision of Katniss Everdeen. As our teenage kids gain independence, freedom, attitude and – most importantly – car keys, this phase of parenting requires new parenting skills: Exhausting levels of patience … Self-control to not respond in anger … Wisdom to speak God’s truth … And an understanding ear when heartbreak occurs. While not every teenager will abandon Christ, every teenager is theologically a sinner at their core and will poke, prod, question and even doubt their faith during this phase of life. So always stand ready to explain the reason for your faith to the discerning young adults in your home, because you can’t force them to follow Christ.

Matt’s Music Update #2: Vanishing Point, Volume 2

So in my spare time, I work in my home studio.

Over last summer, I wrote a series of songs about life/death that I’ve called Vanishing Point, Vol. 1. Those songs are some of my favorite jams of all time … You can find out about that album (available for FREE) at my previous blog post.

Obviously, that means that there’s a Vanishing Point, Vol. 2.

So I wrote another group of songs last summer that don’t really fit into the life / death theme. These songs were more about the illusiveness of time. My world was shook a few ago when one of my students was killed by a drunk driver. Quickly thereafter, another one of my students unexpectedly died of a strange illness. I came to understand what James 4 meant about life being a mist: We might leave this world at any moment.

As a young Chuck Taylor wearing ’80s kid, you think you’ve got more than enough time to change the world (and ego to match). Almost instantaneously, 30 years pass. Kids are born. Relationships are forged and broken. Young people in their prime strangely die. Scenery changes for better and worse. Money comes and (mostly) goes. You begin to wonder why the kids you knew in high school looked so old on Facebook. Bodies break down. Joints start to creak. Full swing sets eventually stand empty and motionless. The person in the high school snapshot with the Chuck Taylors becomes unrecognizable.

And you realize “younger you” was so wrong. The barrels of time you once gripped vanishes into moments that feel like sand slipping through our fingers. We’re rapidly hurtling on rollercoaster towards the day when Christ returns. This life is an illusion and His kingdom is the new reality. We begin wearing the future-tense lenses of Scripture that change our present reality.

As I careen quickly to my grave, I have great hope and joy in knowing we’re one day closer to Christ’s final victory. No more sin. No more death. No more tears. Eternal rejoicing. Forever worship. I have so much hope in the future … Because the future is not about me at all. It’s about Christ.

So here’s some insight into the 2nd nine songs composing Volume 2 of Vanishing Point:

  • “And All That Was Will Be Overcome”: The closest I’ve come to a worship song in recent memory. One day, the groaning and constant struggle of this world will cease. Our shack on earth will be torn down and we will be given a permanent home. Christ will overcome all that was. Hallelujah, that day is coming soon.
  • “1988”: The year I was saved. It’s no longer I who lives but Christ in me (Galatians 2:20).
  • “Low”: I’ve written on my blog before about my struggle with depression. This song is my reminder about what God says on the days I feel low.
  • “You & Me (A Song For G)”: A song for my daughter about the rough days and the hope that can only be found in Christ.
  • “Storm Clouds On A Windy Day”: Our lives are like a mist. Suddenly here and quickly gone. We dissipate at unforeseen hours (James 4:13-17). This song is about my students who’ve died suddenly and left loved ones behind. Let us remember to love the Lord with the time we have.
  • “Who I Am In Christ”: Anchored. Loved. Safe and sound. Adopted. Redeemed. Found in Christ. That’s who I am. And a few bad days will never change my identity.
  • “Burn The Porch Down”: I don’t recommend literally burning your porch down. But I do recommend letting go of the temptation of getting stuck in the past. Move on.
  • “Reconstruction”: All of the Christian life is repentance. It’s past time to stop burning bridges and to start building for His kingdom.
  • “Phantom Time”: When we realize this life is the illusion and His kingdom is the genuine reality, everything changes.

Again, you can download Volume 2 of Vanishing Point for FREE here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 2. And you can still download Volume 1 too here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 1.

Enjoy the tunes because I’m going to keep making them.

Charlie Brown’s Parents: Becoming Biblical Communicators With Our Kids

Who doesn’t love the classic Charlie Brown holiday specials? As a kid, I imagined waiting in pumpkin patch with Linus for the Great Pumpkin. I personally identified with the hard-on-his-luck Charlie Brown, and secretly rooted for him to finally kick that football … And rub it in that smug pop psychologist Lucy’s face.

One of the most enduring gags of the television specials is how the adults spoke. Apparently, Charles Schultz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, intentionally never showed adults in his cartoon, so as to make the children’s point-of-view as the cartoon’s focus. So the prohibition of adults from the original cartoon created a challenge when one of the television specials proposed a classroom interaction between the kids and their teacher. To keep the “parent world” offscreen, a trombone player was brought in to become the voice of the teacher’s speech in the television special. And so a running gag was born: No one can understand what the adults are saying.

For most parents, we often feel like the adults in the Charlie Brown television specials, speaking in an undecipherable and unintelligible foreign language to sighing children blankly staring into cell phone screens. We momentarily consider waterboarding our own children as we repeatedly ask in a clearly non-rhetorical fashion to dumbfounded faces: “What did I just say?” As we teeter on the last vestiges of sanity, we wonder how perfectly intelligent children ever lost their grip on the English language.

So why is communication with our kids so difficult? It comes down to a simple Gospel issue: Our kids are sinners … And so are we. Our kids’ hurts, hangups and heart issues often get in the way of clear communication. They’re upset that special person of the opposite gender won’t give them the time of day so they lash out or clam up. They feel unloved and friendless so they clamor for attention or put others down. Their sinful hearts’ desires lead to foolishly hurtful words: “I hate you!” Unfortunately, parents’ communications can quite easily fail because we’re sinners too: A rough day at work leads to impatience … Our misplaced hopes lead to misunderstandings … Tired eyes lead to closed ears.

Make no mistake: Both kids and parents communicate poorly because of our lingering sinful nature and not because our mouths cannot function properly. Jesus aptly summarizes the issue in Luke 6:45: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Our lips simply betray our hearts’ desires. Communication is a Gospel issue: As we grow in Christ-likeness – seeking His will, His desires and His kingdom, our hearts are progressively sanctified and so too our lips in the process.

Therefore, the challenge for parents is to become more Christ-like communicators with our kids. And, fortunately, the Bible has plenty to say in that regard. So here are eight quick thoughts on becoming a more Christ-like communicator with our kids:

  1. Be Quick to Listen (James 1:19): The core principle of being “quick to listen” is the desire to know and to understand our kids’ hearts – whether good, bad, calloused or crazy. For many parents, this challenging of listening to teenage kids seems intimidatingly impossible. We’d much rather pursue an easier path of parental dictatorship, where we simply desire compliance … And compliance does not require understanding. To the contrary, God desires us to really understand what makes our kids tick. And understanding requires intentionality. When my daughter was much younger, a wise parent once told me: “If you don’t listen to your kids now, they definitely won’t listen to you in 10 years.” Fortunately, I took that advice to heart. Throughout every stage of my daughter’s life, I’ve tried to create time and space to intentionally listen to my daughter in long car rides and Dairy Queen dates. Especially with distant teens, parents need to take the initiative to create time and space simply to listen without barking orders or trying to assert control.
  2. Be Slow to Speak (James 1:19): Restraint of the tongue requires the spiritual fruit of patience and an ample outpouring of the Holy Spirit – especially when our kids have wrecked the family station wagon or stayed out past curfew for the 57 millionth time. Simply speaking the first thing that pops into our heads has led to much foolishness and a lifetime of parental regret. When we speak, we must avoid all bitterness, wrath, malice or other unwholesome speech and speak with the Godly grace, forgiveness and wisdom that our kids need to hear.
  3. Speak Truth In Love (Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14): OK, this one seems obvious: Don’t lie to your kids. But if we really analyzed our daily conversations with our kids, we would often find that we routinely tell half-truths or completely leave out information to achieve our insidious goals: To manipulate our kids to get what we want … Or to avoid another nasty argument … Or to generally maintain some level of control over our children. Most often, I have found Christian parents lie when it comes to their kids’ sin. Our tendency is to avoid admonishment of our children for fear of driving a wedge in a relationship. We must remember that truth and love are not mutually exclusive concepts.
  4. Handle Problems Today (Ephesians 4:26-27): When Ephesians 4:26-27 speaks “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” God is urging us to avoid procrastination. Unfortunately, we are a culture that glorifies the avoidance of confrontation. We’d much rather block and unfriend on social media than actually do the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness. When it comes to our kids, parents also tend to kick the can down the line when it comes to tough topics. I mean, who really relishes the impending awkward conversation when your daughter is caught sneaking around with a dude you hardly know? However, anger held like a grudge provides a foothold for temptation from the devil and leads to an ever-expanding tornado of sin, including bitterness, wrath and malice. When we put off conversations, simple problems multiply to a sticky, chaotic mess. As I heard pastor recently say: “It’s easier to kill two rabbits in your backyard before they multiply into 10,000.”
  5. Quit Complaining (Philippians 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:18): When we routinely complain about the mundane aspects of life, we are teaching our kids that we should not be content in Christ through every circumstance. To the contrary, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 states that the will of Christ is to give thanks in every circumstance. This Biblical prohibition doesn’t mean that we don’t tell our kids to clean up our room or take out the trash. But we should consider refraining from the type of unhealthy complaint that overflows from the selfish desires of our heart about smelly rooms, hectic schedules and broken down cars. Parental responsibility does not give us license to perpetually complain to and about our kids regarding their bad habits and relationship dramas. Grumbling is not Godliness … Grumbling simply reveals where we need more patience and contentment.
  6. Encourage (Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 10:24-25): When the New Testament speaks of “encouragement,” it’s never in connection with baseball games, homework or spelling competitions. Biblical encouragement is about spurring another believer onward in the faith. Specifically, we should be our kids’ biggest cheerleaders in the Christian faith. All of those times when you rouse grumpy kids out of bed for church is not an annoyance … It’s important Gospel work. When you talk to your kids about the importance of daily devotions or small group Bible study, you are motivating your kids towards the finish line of the faith. And when our kids challenge our beliefs or express doubts in their faith, our Biblical responses eventually form the foundation of our kids’ faith system. As we draw nearer to the day of Christ’s return, we should not grow weary of encouraging our kids in their faith.
  7. Speak Grace (Ephesians 4:29-31; Colossians 3:8): Most importantly, we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us. As in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), we cannot be a disciple whom Christ has forgiven much … But hold a grudge against every little fault of our children. As crazy as it seems from a distance, parents can easily become bitter and malicious against their own children – especially teenage ones – that spectacularly and egregiously sin. As we speak to a household of rebellious know-it-alls and venomous trolls, we must remember that we were once foolish rebels before the forgiveness of Christ. If our kids don’t hear words of forgiveness from their own families in Christ, they might not hear that message anywhere else apart from the grace of Christ.

Zombies!: 9 Ways To Fight Your Kids’ Technology Addictions

Last Sunday night, I was talking to our church’s High School group about the Biblical response to depression. In the midst of discussion, I talked about strategies for getting negative voices out of our lives. One of those strategies involved shutting off your phone and getting off social media. So I gave an example from my personal life: I like to go on walks or to the shopping mall while leaving my phone behind at home.

Collective gasps of horror from the teenage audience ensued.

One young lady emphatically cried out: “You just can’t do that!!!”

My confused immediate reply: “Why not?”

Same young lady: “What if you get hurt and need to call 911?!?”

Me: “Listen … I went to the store for years without taking my cell phone … Because they didn’t exist yet. You can go to Meijer without your phone.”

Another teenager: “You’re just being reckless.”

There you go: Reckless. Oh, witness the horror of disconnecting from the matrix! Keanu Reeves, where are you?

Here’s the obvious takeaway: Our kids are largely addicted to their devices. Consider the following stats on teens’ cell phone usage from Common Sense Media:

  • 50% of teens said that they were addicted to their mobile devices.
  • 78% of teens check their devices at least hourly.
  • 70% of teens said that they argue with their families about their amount of cell phone use.
  • 77% of parents said that their kids get distracted by devices and don’t pay attention when they’re together.

Even worse, I’m witnessing an alarmingly increasing number of church families in crisis mode due to teens and technology. Most of the issues simply revolve around the horde of teen smart phone zombies roving around most houses, blankly staring into screens, ignoring their parents’ conversations and conversing only in caveman-like grunts. However, I’m now routinely counseling families regarding a veritable laundry list of sins teens are committing simply via Internet and social media access: cyberbullying, gossip, pornography, cat-fishing, financial scams, sexting, sexual deviancy, idolatry of all kinds … you name it. Hand in hand, I’ve heard story after story of infuriated and frustrated parents wondering how to respond to growing technology problems in their homes: “How can I reclaim my kids from being a smart phone zombie?”

Let me go ahead and say this blog isn’t going to be a pollyanna approach to technology, where I suggest that Christians become technological Luddites. Everything God created has the capacity to be used for good or sinful purposes, and technology is no different. Christians must be wise stewards of the technology and devices that we have been blessed with. So I’m not going to suggest holding a smart phone bonfire in your backyard.

Without further ado, here are 9 practical strategies for minimizing the negative impact of technology in your home:

  1. Don’t Start Too Young: My daughter is currently 10 years old. Her classmates often ask how they can text her. The answer is they can’t … According to our house rules, she won’t get a phone for a many years to come. However, our daughter is an exception to the norm: Most kids now get their first cell phone at 10 years old. In conjunction, 45% of online 12 year old use social media. Considering most social media sites have “age restrictions” (and I use that term loosely) for signup, that figure is astonishing and frightening. Ask yourself the question: Are kids who poorly navigate social relationships, hit hot-and-heavy puberty and can’t be trusted to walk the dog truly competent to meaningfully interact with peers and strangers online? My answer is no. So consider holding off on the cell phone under you believe your kid is mature enough to handle the responsibility. And don’t allow your kids to sign up for social media sites that they are legally prohibited from joining (see figure below courtesy linneyville.com).social-media-age-restrictions
  2. Get Devices Out of Their Rooms: This rule has been hard and fast in our home. And this rule is the one I most recommend to parents. There are no televisions or computers in our kids’ rooms. We only have televisions or computers in family areas. When we watch television, we do it together. When we use the computer, we generally use it in each others’ presence. Not only does this negate temptation for our child, it also minimizes temptation for the adults too. We always have to ask the question: “Should this media be around our kids?” Considering how most teens dabble in pornography and /or sexting, the accountability that comes from keeping devices in public places is highly important.
  3. Delete Dangerous Apps: With so many teens using cell phones and social media, it’s no surprise that apps are increasingly being developed towards teens’ worst proclivities. A great example is the notorious Calculator% app, which – despite looking like a calculator app on your home screen – is actually designed to hide unscrupulous pictures on your phone. While parents might feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with their kids’ apps, the website teensafe.com offers an annual “blacklist” of apps that parents should consider banning from their kids’ phones. Here are 3 apps in particular parents should be concerned about:
    • Snapchat: Most kids believe this app to be an innocuous photo app with the fun doggie and rainbow vomit photo filters. But the heart of Snapchat is the ability to share photos with others for a certain time period before they self-destruct. To this end, Snapchat can become a vehicle for discreetly sharing salacious or offensive pictures. Although Snapchat openly warns users to not use the app for sexting, Snapchat (justly or unjustly) probably will forever be associated with teens sharing nude photos. Regardless, the temptation of sharing photos with no accountability can be dangerous for teens. Find out more about Snapchat here.
    • Kik Messenger: Kik is a wildly popular messaging app that allows a level of anonymity to messaging. Kik is another app associated with sexting, and is increasingly popular with child predators due to the app’s anonymity. Find out more about Kik here.  Some close cousins of Kik are Whatsup and Yik Yak.
    • ask.fm: This app is notorious for its connection to cyberbullying and suicide. Find out more about ask.fm here.
  4. Protect Your Kids’ Privacy: One of the big generational differences between my generation (Gen X) and Millennials / Post-Millennials is the younger generations’ lack of hesitancy to interact with “internet friends.” To a generation growing up practically wired to the Internet, interacting with Internet strangers on gaming platforms or social media sites is no big deal. In a medium that lends itself to creeps and cat-fishing, the real danger is our kids oversharing in manners they consider commonplace or harmless. According to Pew Research, kids who use social media area highly likely to share personal photos, birthdates, school names and where they live online. So consider the following household rules:
    • If your kids use social media, steer them towards Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms where you can restrict friends lists and can restrict the level of information put out on the Internet.
    • Use this rule of thumb: You can only be social media friends with people you’ve actually met in real life. Eliminate people from your kids’ friends list that you don’t know.
  5. Carve Out Device Free Times / Zones: When your kids stare into a device screen all day, the solution is to set appropriate boundaries. Eliminate media from homework times. Eliminate media from family dinners. Eliminate media from car rides to and from social or practices. Don’t allow your kids to use their smart phone at school. Create times and spaces to actually talk to one another instead of texting one another from the couch to the love-seat. On the other hand, don’t be draconian in your approach. Instead of banning wifi and devices entirely from your home (and alienating your kids), give healthy parameters for your kids to communicate with their friends and peers.
  6. Buy An Alarm Clock For Everyone: Many of us have used their cell phone as an alarm clock or white noise machine. I have been guilty of this habit. But here’s what I’ve found: When my cell phone is in the bedroom, I tend to waste 15-30 minutes when going to bed and upon waking up checking social media. Similarly, our kids lose sleep due to devices too. According to Huffington Post, adolescents who used their phones an hour before bedtime were between 35 and 53 percent more likely to miss two or more hours of sleep a night compared to peers who didn’t. In addition, students actually send an average of 34 texts and emails a night after going to bed. Reclaim your sleep and your kids’ sleep by eliminating devices from your sleep environment. Unless you’re on-call for work, there’s really no solid reason why to have your phone by your head all night long anyway.
  7. Snoop Without Shame: Providing accountability for your kids’ device usage is a boondoggle for many parents, because they don’t hold their kids accountable until AFTER there’s a problem. Our job as Christian parents is to trust our kids but recognize the theological reality of Scripture: Our kids are sinners who face worldly temptations – just like parents. So the key is to randomly and regularly check up on what our kids are doing online. Check browser histories. Check who your kids are connecting with on social media. Check messaging apps. Kids are likely to protest parental accountability, but the purpose is twofold: (a) To check on what your kids post; and (b) To check on how other kids (or adults) interact with your kids.
  8. Don’t Be a Hypocrite: Nothing will undermine your rules about your kids use of technology faster than seeing you break those rules or arbitrarily enforcing the rules. You will quickly lose face if you don’t obey your own tech rules. If you set a rule about no cell phones at the dinner table, don’t use your cell phone either. By the way, 29% of teens said that their parents were addicted to their mobile device. Ouch! Know that your kids really are watching.
  9. The 1 Corinthians 10:31 Principle: Teach your kids that technology can be used in a Godly manner. And let 1 Corinthians 10:31 be your family’s mantra about social media: “Whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Instill with your kids ideas for positively using social media: Encourage other believers … Promote your local church … Share what God is teaching you from Scripture … Build up other people instead of tearing others down … Commend instead of complain. Don’t be afraid of social media. Instead, be wary … Be wise … And – most importantly – be the example for your kids of Godly social media use.

Music & Me: Vanishing Point Vol. 1

Vanishing Point Vol 1 Cover.jpgSince I picked up my first Sigma guitar in downtown Richmond, VA at the age of 16, I started writing songs. It was my way of journaling my relationship with God – talking about frustrations and doubts … rejoicing in spiritual breakthroughs. From the James Madison University Baptist Student Union (BSU) … to worship leading in New England and rural Virginia … to Seminary life in Fort Worth, TX, song writing has been my favorite way of communicating with God.

Then I became a senior pastor. And I put my guitar away. Stopped writing music. For some reason, I felt like I finally needed to grow up and grow out of writing music. After all, God was calling me to do more important stuff – like preaching, visitation and Wednesday night prayer meetings.

In reality, music felt like a missing phantom limb.

Then came an unexpected heart attack … A brush with mortality … A change in ministry accompanied by a change in scenery. And that’s when I started writing songs again. From June 2016 to October 2016, I wrote 21 songs.

My new album of songs, Vanishing Point, is my last will and testament. Let me be clear: I don’t really plan on dying anytime soon … My cardiologist gave me a clean bill of health two months ago. But our life could end in the blink of an eye … And who can plan on death really?!?

So Vanishing Point is what I want to say in the face of death. It’s a declaration of the hope that I have in Christ. It’s my last words to my family. It’s the songs I want played at my funeral. Honestly, it’s 18 happy little songs about the prospect of death and eternal life.

Since 18 songs is a lot to digest, I’m releasing Vanishing Point in two volumes. And since streaming music services pay essentially nothing to artists (i.e. I’m currently earning a vast fortune at $.0001 / play for my older music on Spotify), I’m releasing them both for FREE on Noisetrade. You can download the album for FREE here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 1

So here’s some insight into the 1st nine songs composing Volume 1 of Vanishing Point:

  1. And The Black Rider Won’t Catch Me Now“: In the graphic novel East of West, death is portrayed as a haggard gunslinger that crisscrosses the country chasing down his quarry. It’s a powerful image of death hunting us down. So here’s my opening shot of the album: Death can chase me … But he’ll never REALLY catch me. All because of the work of Christ.
  2. Let’s Destroy Thomas“: Back in 2000, I wrote a song proclaiming the virtues of doubt called “Thomas.” That song was theological garbage. So “Let’s Destroy Thomas” is a way to reinterpret and correct my own wrongheaded song. Ultimately, I don’t want to race to the finish line with increasing doubts and unfinished business. While the Biblical Thomas’ doubts are identifiable, they are also not a virtue to be emulated. I want God to cast out my doubts and strengthen my faith. Instead of Thomas, I think we do well to emulate the father of the sick child in Mark 9:21: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
  3. Vanishing Point“: A few years ago, a good friend and fellow pastor from High School died. By chance (or God’s providence, really), I bumped into him again in adulthood in a fast food joint in rural Virginia. A few months after that meeting, a terminal illness quickly took his life. While I wasn’t there at the end, my friends told me that he rejoiced and sang from his hospital bed at the prospect of heaven. He told everyone within earshot Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.” I wish that I could say that I’ve always had attitude … I’ve wasted so much time making marks for my own glory. Building monuments and making names for ourselves during our short journey on Earth are pointless. Christ is all. To quote  missionary Count Zinzendorf: “Preach the Gospel, die and be forgotten.” May our glory vanish away and may His glory be clearly seen.
  4. Black Hearse“: Death is a grotesque financial racket. The average cost of a funeral in the US is now between $7,000-$10,000. During the course of preaching a funeral in central Indiana, I hitched a ride to the cemetery in the local funeral director’s new hearse. Before we arrived, the local funeral director flatly threw out the astronomically absurd amount of money that a new hearse costs. My jaw hit the floor. I kept thinking: “How many people have to die to pay for this car?” It’s a good thing that death won’t last forever. I’m so looking forward to taking my “How To Direct A Funeral” book and starting a bonfire.
  5. Drowning With Land In Sight“: Matthew 7:21-23 are the scariest verses of the Bible. Those verses keep me awake at night. The prospect of serving God but not knowing God is frightening. It’s like a pilot seeing the landing strip but crashing. Or drowning with land in sight. God help us.
  6. When I’m Gone“: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is an amazing book musing on the nature of Heaven.  When I’m gone from this life, I desperately want to leave the old grey town behind and catch the bus to eternal life. So read the book … The song will make much more sense.
  7. Homecoming Day“: I think there’s one thing we get consistently right about Heaven: It’s a celebration. Luke 15 reflects that message. The Father rejoices as we come home and dine at His table. So let’s gather round and crank up the praise … It’s homecoming day.
  8. Closer To Closure“: Time is a funny thing. One moment, we’re in line at the DMV and the clock is dragging along. Another moment, we’re watching the kids that swung outside on the swings graduate from High School. One moment, we’re retreading the same old selfish sins. Another moment, we don’t recognize the holier person God is turning us into. Through it all, those that believe are inching closer and closer to our final resting place. Every day that passes is one step closer to home.
  9. “Restless / Endless”: Constantly dreaming of eternal shores where pain is no more.

Again, you can download Volume 1 of Vanishing Point for FREE here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 1.

Volume 2 coming shortly.

You Are Not The Gardener (On Parenting & John 15)

I am a terrible gardener … A complete brown thumb.

One spring in Virginia, I tried my hand at planting a garden. After all, how hard could it be?!? I mean, they practically give away the seeds at the end-caps of the local hardware store, beckoning amateur gardeners to get their hands dirty. Well … It was mind-numbingly horrific on so many levels. We couldn’t keep the weeds from choking out from most of the plants. The squirrels had a daily feast underneath of our noses. Only afterward did we find out vital information about tilling the garden and proper planting techniques. The only thing that we managed to grow that spring was jalapeño peppers … And a local beaver devoured all of them. Totally not kidding … Who knew that beavers were into spicy food? I watched from my back porch every day as that beaver tauntingly feasted on my future salsa.

I was thinking about being a terrible gardener while studying Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches in John 15 for some parenting material that I’m putting together for my local church. The main thrust of John 15 is about abiding in Christ … Believers must stay connected to the power and the nourishment that comes from Christ to produce anything worthwhile in this life. Any spiritual fruit – love, joy, pace, patience and the like – ultimately stems from a relationship with Christ. Growth comes from God. His people are wholly dependent upon Him.

As parents, it helps to know our role in Jesus’ parable. God is the gardener, pruning the plant to produce whatever shape and fruit He desires. Christ is the true vine, who is the source of all power and growth in our lives. As Christian parents, we are branches. We are works in progress. Like stubborn rose bushes, we are being pruned back by the gardener of sin and other dead weights to produce spiritually vibrant blooms and fruit.

If our kids are followers of Christ, they are branches too. Rebellious, poorly misshapen, rough around the edges and often quite annoying, but branches nonetheless. As mature Christians, parents might be more visually appealing, well-worked branches … But both parent and child are branches in the hands of a loving gardener.

So here’s the important reminder: Parents, you are not the gardener.

Our job as parents is to introduce our kids to the gardener – not to attempt to usurp the gardener’s job. Our sinful natures and inflated egos desperately desire to be the agents of change in our kids lives where Scripture tells us we cannot. Only in Christ are we new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only in Christ are our sins erased (Titus 3:4-7). As much as we trust in the most-shared, most-“liked” parenting articles on social media, we must understand that timeouts, spankings, schooling decisions, breast feeding choices or whatever else fad is trending on twitter doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans in the scope of eternity. And that’s Biblical, baby (see the aforementioned 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Titus 3:4-7 again). Apart from God, our kids are spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 3:12-13) and spiritually foolish (1 Corinthians 2:6-16) and will continue to act that way until God breaks through.

On one level, it’s tremendously freeing to have the weight of responsibility for change in our kids lifted off our shoulders. Many of you reading this article – particularly ones with hard headed teens who steal gas money out of your wallet and routinely break curfews – have pulled your last hair out with various scattershot attempts at changing your kids awful behavior. You’ve asked everyone from your pastor to your hairdresser for advice on how to make your kids better. You may have gotten to the point of hiring a professional counselor. You might not even like the teenage alien strangers living in your house who are vague facsimiles of once-pliable children anymore. Above all, you feel like you’ve failed with shaping your kids. Well, it’s really not surprising … We are terrible gardeners, who lack the ability and skill to water and prune our kids. Broken people are pretty crummy at modifying the behavior of other broken people. We need divine intervention … For reals, y’all.

So it’s so oddly illogical that Christians spout out “only God changes people” when dealing with their rude, annoying co-worker but feel so unbearably guilty about producing their rude, annoying children. Stop with the guilt non-sense. God is in the gardening business and you are just a lowly branch. The real sin is believing that you can accomplish what only God can.

On another level, our control freak natures scream out in the anguish of our inability to change others. We want to show off our well-polished kids with straight A report cards, baseball participation trophies and starring roles in the school play, because we feel that our kids demonstrate what awesome gardeners we are. And we hide our kids under a virtual mattress when they experiment with oral sex and wreck the family station wagon, because it shows we’re bad gardeners. We want to compare our lame attempts at gardening – from “honor roll student” bumper stickers to prideful Facebook posts – with other parents. We want our friends and enemies alike to pour accolades on us and bask in the glow of hearing: “Your kids turned out so well!” The best spiritual thing we can do is repent of our control issues and move on. Let’s let our inability to change our kids drive us to our knees to pray to the one who has the power to change our kids. And if God changes our kids, give Him the credit and stop giving ourselves pats on the back.

Most importantly, our focus must remain on Christ. The big question is: Are you really taking advantage of every opportunity to introduce your kids to the true gardener? If we’re just introducing our kids to Christ for one hour on Sunday, it just won’t cut it. If we’re handing off our kids to the “specialists” (like student, kids and family ministers) to introduce them to Christ, that won’t cut it either. We might not be the gardener but we can introduce our kids to the gardener regularly. We can’t neglect our kids of the privilege of knowing the life altering presence of Christ.

Thank God that we serve a God who knows our kids and their needs far better than we do.

And thank God that He is willing to lovingly prune our kids to beautifully bloom.

Let’s step aside and let the better gardener do His work.