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.

 

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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.

The Seductive Sin of Busyness

tropical-beach-hammock-wallpaper-1Tuesday was a unusually busy night.

I started off the evening by dropping by a visitation for a church member’s family on the west side of town. Then I sped back to the east side to buy pizza for a fundraiser for an extraordinarily ill child in our church family. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter are doing whatever they do at Zumba. Once we huddle back together, our family scarfs down said pizza and my wife and I take an extended walk around the neighborhood. Once I get back home, I am bombarded by a slew of texts and calls from church members, including sorting out one pressing summer camp issue on the computer. Then collapse into bed.

For many church families, excessively and exhaustingly busy is a normal way of life. A few months ago, I surveyed families in my congregation to see what family ministry issues that they’d like me to teach about. Unsurprisingly, virtually every family listed that they had a problem with busyness. From hearing stories from families spending entire weekends on the road at ballfields, karate studios and distant hotel rooms, I wasn’t shocked.

I’m a recovering workaholic. And recovering is the operative word … I’m working on it. I had a “small” heart attack back in early 2015, which forced me to do some serious reevaluation of my life. One key thing that I quickly realized through the help of doctors and counselors: I was working 80+ hours per week. Like many small town pastors, I was performing ridiculously menial tasks outside of my job description ranging from janitorial tasks to property maintenance. When I resigned myself to a rigid 40 hour work week after my heart attack, a couple church leaders of my church soon confronted me and accused me of getting lazy.

While many church-going Americans recognize “sloth” as one of the seven deadly sins, we glorify busyness as a virtue. We believe in a capitalist God that rewards hard work ethic and throws lightning bolts at the welfare queens, addicts and man-childs playing X-Box in their parents’ basement. God helps those who help themselves and all that (which I believe is a Bible verse found in 2 Hesitations 3:16). Somewhere along the way, we’ve been seduced into falsely believing that God blesses our frenetic scrambles in our mini-vans back and forth from parent-teacher meetings to soccer practice to parcheesi club to dinner parties to pizza fundraisers to underwater ninja warrior twerking club to blindfolded waterboarding sessions. Now why would He bless a lifestyle that intentionally sacrifices devotion to God and quality time with family for the glorification of what should not be glorified?!?

Here’s the big idea: Busyness can be seductively sinful.

The touchstone of why busyness can be sinful is found in the well-versed account of two sisters (Mary and Martha) in Luke 10:38-42. I think we often lack proper perspective while reading this story. Suppose Jesus randomly showed up at your house today … And your house is nowhere near Martha Stewart magazine ready: Dirty dishes are in the sink … Your kids’ dirty socks are stuck in the couch corners … Dust bunnies are rolling like tumbleweed across the floor … Nothing but frozen pizza is available for dinner. You’d probably be moving faster than a jackrabbit on drugs to get your home in order for THE most important dinner guest of all time.

So there’s Martha: The “responsible” one. She’s flittering about the house assembling fine dining for the Messiah and his entourage. I imagine her with sweat pouring off her brow as she’s running to and fro filling her numerous guests’ glasses and barking commands to other ladies franticly throwing the kids’ unsightly toys in the closet. Also in the midst of the chaos of the dinner party, Martha’s sister, Mary, hasn’t lost her chill. She’s soaking in teaching at the feet of Rabbi Jesus and – unlike Martha – is totally not freaking out … Which makes Martha freak out even more. In a fit of frustration, Martha asks Jesus to tell her lazy bum sister to get her rear into gear: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (v. 40). Ironically, Jesus winds up chiding the “responsible” sister instead: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (v. 41-42).

Martha commits a sin of idolatry. She believes that cleaning house, cooking dinner, pouring wine, unclogging toilets and generally running around like a headless chicken are genuinely important under these circumstances. There’s nothing wrong with a little Southern Judean hospitality … Unless that hospitality leads to completely missing the majesty of the Savior. Martha’s priorities are out-of-whack: Run around like a whirling dervish serving tables for a few hours to spend a few exhausted moments with Jesus afterward. Mindless activity for Christ has become more important than the person of Christ. Senseless work is trumping genuine worship. Sound familiar?!?

Christian, we’ve got to start calling a spade a spade. When we value something more than Christ, that’s idolatry. The end. It’s a seductive whisper that robs us of time to devote to Christ and cruelly steals our joy in our First Love. On the day of our funeral, only one genuinely life-giving thing is really important: Christ.

And if we truly believed that “one thing” was important, then our lives would reflect that belief. Instead, our harried lives revealed compromised hearts. We whittle away a few hours for water polo team, piano lessons and the season finale of CSI: Albuquerque and wind up losing our soul in the process. The sum total of our small compromises leads to the type of exhaustion where someone has to scoop you off the couch with a spatula. Worst of all, that soul-crippling exhaustion leads us no closer to Christ. Our joy dissipates into the malaise of depression.

So how to get less busy and more devoted to Christ? Here are few humble suggestions:

  1. Schedule Christ First: A few years back, our family pulled our daughter out of a soccer league because the practices fell during a weekly church activity. It wasn’t a hard decision because my spouse and I agree that Christ is first on our calendars. If you say Christ is first in your family’s life, then put your planning calendar where your mouth is. It’s been well-said by pastors that our checkbook reflects our hearts, but our calendar also reflects our hearts. If we truly love Christ, time with the Lord shouldn’t be the first thing reshuffled or obliterated from your schedule. Our schedules should revolve around Christ and not vice versa.
  2. Stop Comparing Yourself To Others: Often, we’re busy simply because that’s what everyone else around us is doing. Our neighbor’s kids are involved in 3 different after school activities, so it must be “normal” for our kids, right? NO! The whisper of guilt or envy of not being like “normal” families is not the voice of God. The only thing truly not “normal” is your family drifting further away from God. Take some time to pray and determine what is right and reasonable for your family’s schedule. Don’t fall into the sin of comparison.
  3. Humble Yourself: Pride is the enemy of our schedule. Unwittingly, we often say “yes” to the next bake sale or Girl Scout meeting because we secretly don’t want others to hate us. We desire approval, an attaboy or a pat on the back … We want to be part of the team and not left out on the sidelines … And we wind up feeling puffed up and important in the end. Or we attract the attention of pity to ourselves by playing a victim on social media (*insert intentionally vague Facebook post trolling for attention here*). Philippians 2:3 cautions: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Don’t be controlled by others’ opinions … Break free and do what Christ calls in your daily life. Repeatedly ask yourself: “Who am I really doing this activity for?”
  4. Say “No” To Your Family: Often, we simply do things because we’re afraid to say “no” to our kids and spouses. In a fit of temporary insanity, we believe that simply giving in to our kids whining and signing up for our kids’ umpteenth school pizza fundraiser is the “easy” choice. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bleary-eyed, disheveled mom moaned: “I really didn’t want to do this but my kids begged me.” Why do we believe that forfeiting hours of time, energy and sleep to placate our kids is the best choice for our family?!? Worst of all, we often bend our schedules around our kid’s whims instead of God’s Word. So learn to say “NO” firmly, boldly and clearly … And don’t give to whatever carpet wetting, floor pounding tantrum ensues. Your kids will eventually understand what that word means. And you won’t ruin our kids for all eternity by denying them the opportunity to play in four soccer leagues a year … I promise.
  5. Say “No” To Your Church: When Paul talks about spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, believers are repeatedly taught that God blesses each believer with different giftedness. In the spiritual body of the church, one person serves the function of a foot while another is a hand. And one believer cannot fulfill another believer’s function. How does spiritual giftedness relate busyness? Well, the next time that your frantic Sunday School director corners you on Sunday morning to volunteer for a job that you are completely ungifted to fulfill, consider saying “no.” That last statement will make a LOT of ministers nervous, but I firmly believe that most church volunteers burn out by acquiescing to serve where they’re not gifted or passionate. So serve where you’re gifted and passionate. And don’t serve for the sake of serving … You might be a “hand” taking up the service opportunity of a “foot” in your church.
  6. Turn Off Your Technology: Honestly, is there any bigger time killer than the smart phone? I mean … Isn’t it really awesome to have your boss, your kids and your annoying friend be able to call, text or email (or all three) at all hours of the evening? With our technology, we’re never alone even when we’re alone. Someone is always poking us, hostilely demanding our immediate and divided attention. And even when we’re using our phones for leisure, we look from our screens after watching 3 hours of cat videos and wonder how the clock mysteriously wound up to 1AM. Want to reclaim serious time: Find the off button and use it.
  7. Rest (and Don’t Feel Guilty About It): Here’s my personal killer: I feel guilty about relaxing, resting or being “unproductive.” I feel like God wants me to do something more radical and missional than sit on a couch, so I resist anything associated with slacking off – like taking vacations. It’s an unhealthy grasp of grace in my life, inwardly believing that God will be more pleased with me if I work a bit harder. But here’s the thing: God designed man for rest (Mark 2:27; Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:9-11). While New Testament Christians no longer need to be legalistic about Sabbath rest, perhaps we shouldn’t minimize it either. God doesn’t desire sleepless and joyless zombies lumbering daily to earn brownie points with the Father. As children of grace who cannot earn salvation, I need to trust that I can rest and sleep, because more effort on my part will not earn more love of the Father.

If you’d like to study more about busyness and God’s plan for rest for your life, I’d highly recommend Kevin DeYoung’s immensely helpful book, Crazy Busy.

Now stop reading this post and go relax.

Public Schooling To The Glory of God

apple-report-cardIt’s the end of the school year. Standardized testing has been shipped off for scoring. Final report cards are disseminated and slyly hidden from parental eyes. Kids are acting like they’re howling at the full moon. Teachers are frazzled and need a 2-month vacation to Aruba. Parents are tired of hauling their kids around to year-end recitals, art shows, field days, formal dances, pizza fundraisers and lacrosse competitions. Some parents are ever shedding a tear for the end of a season of life due to graduation. Other parents already can’t wait for the kids to go back to school in August.

So in the spirit of final report cards, I want to ask my public school families a year-end question: How are you public schooling to the glory of God?

Or here’s another question: Are you wasting the opportunities that God has given you in the public school setting?

Here’s what I mean by those questions …

One thing that I admire about homeschool families is their sense of intentionality. If you ask any given homeschool family why they homeschool, I am certain they will give you a clear, concise, communicable and completely Biblical answer. To the contrary, many public school families will flounder with the question: “Why do you send your kids to public school?” You will probably get flustered stuttering as an answer. As a public school parent, I’m pretty sure that many public school families don’t fully consider why they’re public schooling or the opportunities that God has given them in the public school setting.

I’ve already blogged about the reasons why our family participates in the public school system, so I’m not going to argue or rehash that issue in this blog. But I do have a humble suggestion for public schooling families out there … If you’re going to send your kids to public school, consider your decision with the spirit of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Specifically, consider how your family is going to glorify God through your decision for public schooling. God is giving your family unique opportunities by participating in public school, so don’t waste those “open doors” that God has given to you.

Here’s a 10 question “report card” for the public school family … Evaluate the following questions for your family over the past school year:

  1. How well are you representing Christ in your public school? (1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 5:20) Always remember that you are Christ’s ambassador, meaning a representative of the kingdom of God, in your public school setting. How you think, dress, speak and act casts a reflection of Christ’s lordship in your life. When we cuss, complain, curse or gossip, our lips betray Christ’s lordship (James 3:10). When we act selfishly and pridefully, we fail to humbly place Christ first in our lives (Philippians 2:3). You are first and foremost a missionary representing Christ wherever you go.
  2. Has your family been praying to eliminate lostness in your public school? (John 15: 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9) When Christ looked over a lost crowd in Matthew 9:36, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Believers must always respond to lostness with compassion instead of callousness. We must pray that God would use us to reach lost people God loves and values in our school system.
  3. Have you verbally shared the full Gospel story with faculty, families or students? (Matthew 5:16; Romans 1:16-17) When you’re stuck waiting around with other parents in a stinky gym for basketball practice to end, it’s time to put down the cell phone and make a meaningful conversation with other families. Talk about what God is doing in your life … Talking about your testimony … Talk about what God is teaching you about your kids. But – ultimately – remember to talk about the Gospel story, because it’s the power of God for salvation.
  4. Have you invited faculty, families or students to your local church? Honest relationships that you have built in the school system can be leveraged to invite others to church. I am proud that many of the public school families in our church’s new AWANA program are inviting families to our local church. As a result, kids are hearing the Gospel and coming to know Christ. So praise God for those relationships.
  5. How have you served the faculty and students of your school with Christ-like love? (Matthew 23:11; Mark 10:44-45; John 13:12-14; Galatians 5:13-14) Our mentality in the public school should always be that Christ has sent us here to serve others instead of simply receiving a governmental service. As an example, our family and local church recently provided breakfast and gifts to local teachers for teacher appreciation week. Our church is also attempting to build a partnership with our local school by providing needed items, such as school uniforms or teaching supplies to the school. Our hope is to serve faculty and students so we can ultimately have a platform to share Christ.
  6. How are you intentionally teaching your kids about God? Regardless of your educational preference, parents still have the Biblical responsibility of teaching their kids about God in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). And this responsibility should never be abdicated to schools, churches, kids ministries or youth programs. Your family should have some intentional strategy, whether family devotionals or otherwise, regarding how to disciple your kids. Blogger Tim Challies urges in blog on public schooling: “Inviting the public school system to educate our children has not meant that we abdicate or outsource all responsibility or ultimately responsibility for the kids’ education. We remain involved in what they do, what they learn, the kids they befriend, and all the rest. Wherever or however children are receiving their education, they need their parents to be involved. Their parents have by far the loudest voice into their lives and, by looking to the Bible together, we can explore, explain and interpret anything that comes their way. We are all homeschoolers!
  7. Have you counseled family problems with Biblical advice? (2 Timothy 3:16-17) When your kids come to you with problems, there is a tremendous opportunity to counsel our kids with sound Biblical advice. Recently, our daughter came home upset that some “mean girls” were calling her names at school. Instead of telling her to punch the kids’ daylights out, we asked her how Christ would respond and were able to practically teach about “turning the other cheek” and “loving our enemies.” Never miss an opportunity to point your kids to Scripture in difficult situations.
  8. Have you had “the talk” with your kids? As a long-time student minister, I’ve found that nothing causes greater disruption to Christian families than when your kids start making goggly eyes at the opposite gender. Make sure that you’re clear about the Bible’s and your family’s expectations about dating, relationships and – yes – even sex. Share about your relationship successes and failures. Don’t be too scared to have these relationship conversations with your kids very early on.
  9. Are extra-curricular activities and sports destroying your family’s spiritual health? It’s easy to allow the “bonus” commitments of school to choke out your spiritual life. I’ve talked with many families that start off skipping one or two Sundays for other weekend commitments … And ultimately wind up spiritually adrift. When our family’s obsession revolves around a school gymnasium instead of Christ, red flags need to be raised up. Don’t give Christ lip-service: If Christ truly is first in your family, then don’t put anything – and I mean anything else – before Him. Your kids won’t grow in Christ with a half-hearted commitment to Christ. Carve out immovable commitments to God on Sundays and other important church activities. Limit the number and time commitment of extra-curricular activities in which your kids can participate. Be bold enough to tell coaches that your family isn’t available on Sundays. And always remember to represent Christ’s kingdom more than a school team.
  10. Are you running the race with endurance? (Hebrews 12:1) Let’s face it: A school year can be exhausting for everyone involved. Sometimes you just want to drop off your kids in Timbuktu and never look back. Without endurance that comes from Christ, we cannot run the race of the Christian life. Endurance is found in casting your cares and burden on the Lord. Endurance is found in encouragement from your local church gathering and small group. Endurance is found in the Word of God. Endurance is found in prayer. When you’re ready to throw in the towel and quit the race, remember that you can’t do it on your own … Turn to Christ and other believers for help.

If you feel like your family hasn’t made any headway on these questions over the past year, remember that – by God’s grace – there’s another school year coming up soon.

So enjoy summer vacation, everyone!

Why Youth Ministry Needs Old People

Hipster couple talking and drinking coffee to go at university campus

Virtually every week, I’ll talk with potential volunteers for student ministry who will inform me with knocking knees and a frightened quiver in their voice: “I’m too old to work with students.”

And I just want to beat my head against the wall.

As an “old person” working in student ministry, it’s an issue with which I admittedly take personal umbrage. I was late bloomer in the field of student ministry … I entered Seminary at the ripe old age of 31. In case you don’t know, that’s the equivalent of Methuselah by student ministry standards. I didn’t have Rob Bell glasses and a hipster beard. I’ve never shopped at Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie. It’s hard to have a faux hawk with male pattern baldness. I didn’t even own a white belt for crying out loud. But God did give me giftedness and passion to work with students.

After completing my Mdiv degree as a rather ancient 34 year-old, I endured several months of church search committees lobbing thinly veiled insults about my “old age” for student ministry: “How do you plan on relating to kids soooooooooo much younger than you? … How do you stay current on what’s going on in youth culture? … Are you familiar with how to use the Internet? … What type of TV shows do you think our kids watch? … Have you considered becoming a senior pastor instead? … How are you going to ‘wow’ kids to Jesus?” And – no – I’m not making any of these questions up. When I interviewed with a major student camp program, the headhunters literally laughed me out of the room, branding me as older than Moses riding a dinosaur and unable to “relate” to kids.

Now I’m 41 … And I’m working with students. And I still don’t own a white belt.

So let’s ask the question: Should age or “relatability” be a disqualifying factor in working with youth? More importantly: What does Scripture say about the matter?

If you’re looking for a coherent model of student ministry in Scripture, one of the (very) few places that speaks of young persons and Christian education is Titus 2:1-8:

1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.

What separates Titus 2 from other passages that speak about discipling young persons (i.e. Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6:1-5) is the emphasis on the role of the church body pouring into the life of young people in its midst. And let’s get the exegesis right: This passage is about age (“older” and “younger”), and assumes that spiritual maturity generally comes with age (with emphasis on the word “generally”). So older men are to teach sound doctrine to younger men … Older women are to similarly disciple younger women. God has designed discipleship in the church to be intentionally cross-generational, which is the exact opposite of what exists in most churches.

Since the 1940s, our churches have largely mimicked successful para-church groups (Youth For Christ; Young Life; Inter Varsity), segregating kids into compartmentalized ministries tailored to their own interests led by specialized, expert ministers. In most larger churches (and even many smaller churches), the commonplace is that our youngest children spiritually germinate in a kids department with a separate kids worship service … And then eventually graduate to a youth department with a separate youth worship service … And then perfunctorily drop out of church upon graduation because they can’t figure out the whole “adulting in church” thing.

So somewhere along the way, we gleefully handed our kids and student ministries over to the “specialists.” The adults could finally attend a quiet and uninterrupted worship service while the kids of all age groups are being babysat by pastors in training. And adults no longer needed to get their hands dirty in the messy work of student discipleship. We humored ourselves in believing that kids would be magnetically transfixed to Christ by “relatable” young leaders with trendy gauges in their ears and handlebar mustaches. We pushed the “easy button.” We chose comfort of the recliner over the hard work of the plow. And created a bizarre hypocrisy in the church where we see quite elderly grandmothers accepted in the nursery changing dirty diapers but banned from the youth room discipling students.

Frankly, “relatability” is highly overrated in student ministry, and – more importantly – spoken nowhere in Scripture. You certainly don’t find it in Titus 2: “Let the older women use Snapchat and understand the terms ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek’ … Let the older men get Jesus tats, hipster beards and skinny jeans …” By nature, fads will ebb and flow over time, and have nothing to do with anyone’s calling to ministry. Any church that judges suitability of leaders for student ministry on whether they own TOMS instead of their walk with Christ is walking into a bear trap. Are we really willing to disqualify our strongest believers from student discipleship because they don’t know the Kardashians? I’m not saying that student ministry leaders should be frozen in time on the set of Happy Days … But I am saying that attempting to “relate” kids to Christ is a fools errand. On a transcendent level, the legit story of Gospel already relates to all peoples, all cultures and all life stages.

Please don’t translate this blog post into bashing young student ministers. I’m not. We shouldn’t look down upon young leaders setting a great example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity (Yes … I’ve read 1 Timothy 4:12 … Simmer down, Millennials). But I am saying that our churches cannot venerate youth or relatability in student ministry to the point of tossing out spiritual maturity into the garbage bin. We shouldn’t look down on the “old folks” in church either.

So to all the “old” people out there: Student ministry desperately needs you. Don’t let anyone – and I mean anyone – tell you that you’re “too old” to speak into the lives of kids.

We need your mom jeans, your hot flashes, your crock-pot casseroles and your inexplicable Starbucks obsessions.

We need your combovers, your NPR radio and your out-of-fashion dad shorts.

We need your awkward inability to figure out what an Instagram is and your frustration in figuring out how to text emojis.

We need to hear how Christ has walked with you through the valley of the shadow: Your cancer diagnosis … The death of your spouse … Your son’s addiction … Your marital problems.

We need every hand-written note, highlight and underline in your worn-out Bibles.

We need your unbridled joy and passion for potluck dinners, prayer meetings and the unmistakeable taste of overly-percolated church coffee.

We need the spiritual maturity and discipline that comes from a lifetime of following Christ.

More than anything, we desperately need you to speak the Gospel with beauty, clarity and conviction into the lives of our young people.

So let’s get to work.