Graceless Dads, Overly Spiritual Pastors, & Sticky Notes

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As much as we want to romanticize or idealize childhood, children live in the real world—the same beautiful and broken world we adults inhabit. Through his writing, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones regularly reminds me that it’s the Bible’s storyline that helps us look at our world holistically, that is, in a way that keeps together what we often perceive as separate childhood or adult realities.

“The Bible should frame every aspect of our lives—including family life,” Jones says. In other words, a biblical worldview must shape the way I view children. Theologians often summarize this biblical lens as a fourfold movement: creation—fall—redemption—consummation. What does this storyline framework teach us about kids?

First, our children are created in God’s image. My daughters are fearfully and wonderfully made. Their lives are imbued with the glory of a universe that reflects God’s beauty. God and their mom’s genetics have given them some athletic ability. My girls have been endowed with imagination and an ability to think and know. A child’s life has value because he or she is made in God’s image.

Second, our children are fallen. Even children are but dust. They experience the pain of a world marred by sin, abuse, suffering, and death. Rob Plummer writes, “Sometimes, people talk about coming from dysfunctional families. The reality is that, because of sin, we are all ‘dysfunctional’ at the deepest level.” My daughters need comfort, care, and a healing touch. And when they exchange delight in God’s glory for delight in the pleasures of the moment, they need discipline and correction as well.

Third, our children need Jesus to save them. They need redemption. Jesus himself says, “Let the children come to me.  Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matthew 19:14 NLT). Jesus’ words should encourage us to call children to him. His words should inspire us to help them see that his good news is their only hope.

Finally, in light of the coming consummation, our children are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. If my daughters stand beside me in the new heavens and new earth, it will not be as my daughters but as my blood-redeemed sisters. To be embraced by God’s redemption is to be adopted as God’s child, gaining a new identity, which transcends every earthly status and relationship.

This simple outline seems pretty basic. But if I’m honest, I have to admit I tend toward the more fractured way of looking at ministry and parenting. I struggle to believe that every part of the biblical message applies all the time. As a dad, I know that I’m responsible for protecting my kids, caring for their bodies, providing for them, and teaching them to make decisions that will lead to a more successful life. These are responsibilities that correspond to the truth I know from a doctrine of creation, humanity, and the fall. But it’s easy (even as a pastor) to neglect the doctrines of redemption and consummation when I’m at home.

You’ve probably heard family ministry leaders complain about parents who have a ‘drop-off mentality.’ Many parents assume the responsibility for evangelizing and training children is best left with clergy. As Jones writes, “School teachers are perceived as the persons responsible to grow the children’s minds, coaches are employed to train children’s bodies, and specialized ministers at church ought to develop their souls.” There’s no doubt this is a problem, but I wonder if the trouble runs even deeper.

Even if I regularly discipline, instruct, and encourage my daughters to pursue what is pure and good, how often do I think about them as potential sisters in Christ? I can help them recognize the right path and seek to restore them when they veer onto the wrong path. When I am disciplining one of my girls, I may even go beyond misbehavior and shepherd her heart motivations. But like an older brother in Christ, am I willing to confess my own sin and repent before my daughters as well? If not, I’m in danger of being a graceless dad.

An equal but opposite temptation beguiles me as a pastor. Because evangelism and discipleship are chief parts of my job description, I’m tempted to embody the role of an elite fixer. In the midst of preparing lessons and managing programs, I too easily forget that God has called me to equip parents to evangelize and teach their own children. Beyond that, I tend to forget just how hard it is for parents to live out the doctrines of redemption and consummation before their children when so many other things dominate their time. Field hockey practice, allergy shots, carpool, and the school Christmas party (not to mention a broken leg, a broken marriage, or unemployment) tend to push ideal times of family worship to the side. If I lack an awareness of the real needs parents in our church experience each day, then the gospel I’m preaching is essentially a gnostic one, that is, a spiritual message that is abstracted from embodied life in the real world.

Praise God for a Savior who doesn’t struggle with seeing ministry through only one or two parts of the biblical storyline. In Christ Jesus, God became man and lived among us. He united our beauty and brokenness in his flesh. He brought redemption, and he’s bringing about the consummation of the kingdom through his church.

I’m particularly thankful for some renewed ways evangelical churches are living out Christ’s more holistic ministry in our time. Renewed emphases on orphan care and social justice for children, for example, help us fight against a graceless or over-spiritualized life. My prayer is that family ministry in our churches embodies the truth of every part of the biblical storyline. I pray that we have more grounded ministry that helps leaders move from merely ‘running a department’ or ‘leading a bunch of programs’ to truly ministering to families in a way that better images forth the Savior’s mission.

Reflection Activity

Author Megan Marshman has developed a reflection activity using sticky notes that has helped our team be more aware and intentional about the needs of families in our community. It is helping us focus our ministry where it is most needed. I hope it helps you as well:

  • Write the words Home and Church on a white board. Draw a gap in between.
  • Under Home, write the particular parts of the biblical storyline that are typically emphasized by parents—Creation and Fall—as well as the danger—Graceless Family—when our focus is on these parts of the storyline in isolation from the end of the story.
  • Under Church, write the particular parts of the biblical storyline that are typically emphasized by pastors and ministry staff—Redemption and Consummation—as well as the danger—Overly Spiritualized Ministry—when our focus is on these parts of the storyline in isolation from the beginning of the story.
  • Next, use yellow sticky notes to write down the various programs your ministry offers (VBS, small groups, family fun night, leadership training, discipleship retreats, midweek, Sunday school, youth camps, etc.). Use a different note for each program. Place these notes on the board under the word Church.
  • Next use a new color of sticky notes to write down the real needs or struggles of individuals and families in your ministry (such as depression, loneliness, divorce, drug or alcohol abuse, inappropriate sexuality, apathy, anger, etc.). Use a different note for each need or struggle. Place these notes on the board under the word Home.
  • Draw a line from each yellow note to each of the needs that particular program meets or addresses. Circle the sticky notes that remain, and ask the following questions: Why are there unmet needs in your current ministry structure? How might those needs be met considering your limited financial or people resources? Can you partner with other churches or para-church ministries to match their ministries to the needs of your church? Or why do you have a program that isn’t meeting the specific needs of your church? How can you use these programs to help other churches in your area?

For more reflections on holistic family ministry, see the following:

  • Rob Plummer, “Bring Them Up in the Discipline and Instruction of the Lord,” in Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011), pp. 45-59.

  • Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples, (Indianapolis: Wesley Publishing, 2011).

  • Michelle Anthony and Megan Marshman, 7 Family Ministry Essentials: A Strategy for Culture Change in Children’s and Student Ministries, (David C. Cook, 2015).

This post originally appeared at AmICalled.com

Family Friday Links 1.1.16

Happy New Year from Gospel Centered Family! We hope you have a blessed 2016! 

This week Ed Stetzer posted about The Importance of Teaching the Big Story, Not Just Morals on his blog at Christianity Today. He shared excerpts from a conference call from six church leaders from across the country. During the phone call he asked the church leaders the following question, "why it is important for kids to know the storyline of the Bible and why it is important to teach more than moralism."  

For The Church posted about 5 Habits for Pastor Dad. The author, Dayton Hartman writes, "Dear pastor, the most important flock you will ever shepherd number in the hundreds and they will never pay you. The most important people you’ve been given to shepherd are the members of your family, especially your children....here are a few simple habits that will get you on the trajectory to being a healthy "pastor dad."

The website Monergism posted a robust Reading Guide for 2016. This is one of the best lists of recommended reading I have seen. It has recommendations for introductory readers to advanced readers. It also has fantastic recommendations for children's books. If you love reading you should check out this reading guide! 

The blog Empowered Living wrote a good blog about how to Create Space For Your Family. They write, "Creating space around and within our schedule allows for freedom of movement and understanding and don't forget the occasional panic attack. The question is "how."....Let's think about creating some space for our family pace. Let's think about setting a few healthy boundaries or borders or margins or limits or space so life makes sense!" 

Greg Baird posted a blog about Dealing with Weariness. Greg writes, "We all go through seasons – short or long – where we become weary.... The truth is, life is hard! I don’t believe there are any formulas for dealing with these season, but here are a few things I’ve learned to do during my seasons of weariness" As we head into 2016 this is a good article to prepare for the new year. 

Story-Formed Classrooms

“All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” (Colossians 1:6 NIV)

According to Paul, the gospel bears fruit and grows. It sounds a bit strange, doesn't it? My concrete brain sort of imagines a Bible storybook with apples and pears growing out the sides. What does that even mean? Here is what Paul is saying. The outcomes of our work in children's ministry are shaped by our proclamation and participation in Jesus' good news story. Gospel ministry of any kind —whether it is preaching, music ministry, student ministry, counseling, mercy, children’s ministry, or our parenting — doesn't find growth or success because of the ministry methods we adopt. We find our only hope in Jesus and in being formed by his good news message. As Timothy Paul Jones has written, "The story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation should frame every aspect of our lives.” But what does that actually look like in a children's ministry classroom? 

Here are a few thoughts about the Bible's basic storyline and your children's ministry classrooms:

Creation
 

First, God made kids for himself.  Just like adults, children are created for worship. As Ted Tripp says, “Children are created to be dazzled.” Our desire as Christians is to bring up a generation of children who are dazzled by God—captured by His creative and redemptive works—always talking about them to one another. At the very least, this means our classroom environments should be engaging. Those who are called and committed to teaching kids should always be growing in the way they use expression to tell Bible stories. We should be committed not only to fill little heads but move little hearts. Commit plenty of time for preparation so your presence and attention during class time can be given to engaging kids rather than figuring out what you're going to say. We want kids to leave our classrooms captivated by God's beauty and love. After all, he is the only true source of salvation and joy. They were created to know him (Psalm 145:3-7).

Fall

Second, kids our broken and sinful--just like us. Even kids exchange fall short of God’s glory and chase after the pleasures of the moment (Romans 3:23). Kids are always worshiping something. The better question to ask is, “What are our children worshiping?” Dolls (and other toys) are often idols competing for our kids' affections. If you don’t believe it, think about what happens when playtime is over and kids are called to sit in story circle. That can be one of the most difficult transitions in a classroom. We can't ignore the battle in our kids' hearts. So show kids that God is better than what they're longing for. Give them a picture of the silliness of toys compared to Jesus. He's better than Transformers, Minecraft, Princess Elsa, and Marvel. Sometimes I'll tell kids about the great toys I played with when I was their age. Then, I'll ask, "Where are they?" Some may be in my parents' attic. But most are rusting in a landfill. "But where is Jesus?" He's still with me. He'll never rust. He'll never leave me or forsake me. Even when I wear out, Jesus is there.

Redemption

Show kids that Jesus is the hero of God’s story. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matthew 19:14 NLT). When we talk about Jesus’ work of salvation in our classrooms, there are two errors we can often fall into. In children’s ministry, we often emphasize the ABCs: (A) Admit you are a sinner; (B) Believe in Jesus; and (C) Confess faith in Him. There is really nothing wrong with that (Romans 10:9-10). But salvation is more about what Christ has done than it is about what we do. One of our classroom teachers recently had every child in her class make a pennant with one of Jesus' names on it. I think she got the idea from Jack Klumpenhower's Show Them Jesus Each member of the class took time to look up a passage with that name and share something about what Jesus has done. It was a great way to teach kids that Jesus is the great Hero of the gospel story.  

Restoration

Finally, in light of the coming restoration, we should see kids are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. To be embraced by God’s redemption means we are adopted as God's child (Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 3:28-29; 4:3-7; Ephesians 1:5; 2:13-22; Colossians 1:12). If one of my daughters stands beside me in heaven (Revelation 7:9-12), it will not be as my daughter but as my redeemed sister (Luke 20:34-38). Seeing kids that way--in light of the end of the story--really changes the way we think about our classrooms. 

Because God has placed us in the role of an authority over children, children are called to submit and follow us (Ephesians 6:1; 1 Peter 5:5). But, because children are also potential brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to lay down our lives for them (1 John 3:16). That means faithfulness in little things—diligent preparation, excellent policies and procedures, and finding/praying for gifted leaders rather than just pulling in who is available.

Because we are older, adults often think about helping kids see how they need to grow. We discipline, instruct, and encourage kids to pursue what is pure and good (Romans 15:14; 1 Timothy 5:1-2). We help them recognize the right path and seek to restore them when they veer onto the wrong path (Matthew 18:21-22; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20; 1 John 5:16). But, because our kids are potential brothers and sisters in Christ, we must seek to develop the leadership habits of an older Christian sibling even before the kids in our classroom come to faith. As older brothers and sisters, we must be willing to confess our own sin and repent before them in the same way we would with any other fellow believer. (James 5:16). 

God’s story of redemption is pretty simple, but living in light of it requires sacrificial intentionality. It means applying ourselves to becoming better storytellers. It means having hard conversations about heart issues. It means celebrating Jesus as the hero. And it even looks like confessing our sins to the kids we teach. It's hard work, but the sacrifice is rewarding. You see, a story-formed classroom begins to look like the One whom the story is about. A gospel-formed classroom is a way of transformation—both for our kids and and for us.

This article initially appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of Kidzmatter Magazine. Follow this link to subscribe to KidzMatter and check out all of their amazing children's ministry resources. 

Free Resource - Story of God for Kids

In case you missed it, Jared posted yesterday about The Art of Storytelling.  For me I haven’t really thought of storytelling as an art form. I have heard some people tell stories better than others, but, until recently, I didn't considered how people can cultivate the skill. But it is increasingly important that we hone our ability to tell stories because people resonate more with stories in our culture than in the past.

U.S. Literacy Facts: Did you know...

  1. Over 50% of people over age 16 are functionally illiterate.
  2. 58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.
  3. 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  4. 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  5. Each day, people in the US spend four hours watching TV, three hours listening to the radio and 14 minutes reading magazines.
  6. It’s estimated we spend as much as 80% of our non-working, non-sleeping time in front of a screen – TV or PC.
  7. Researchers believe 70% or more of people in North America prefer non-literate means of communication. They are preferred oral learners.

As we think about storytelling, I want to introduce some of you to a great resource for kids from our friends at Soma Communities. This resource is called Story of God for Kids. Soma designed this resource to tell children the story of God in a clear and easy to understand way. I have used this in my family and have recommended it to a friend who is doing ministry with kids in a local neighborhood. Both with positive results. It helps equip teachers to communicate the biblical narrative simply, it helps them cultivate dialogue  with kids about what they are learning.

Here are two great reminders for storytellers from the authors of Story of God for Kids. Everyone who disciples children should heart them. 

  1. Don’t just read it—know it and bring it to life! This is so important for people who are regularly interact, teach or volunteer in children’s ministry. Don't just to go through the motions but be excited. Believe this is the best story ever told. Help kids to believe it as well.
  2. This is a dialogue, not a quiz. Use questions  based on the story you are telling to help start a dialogue with kids about what they are learning. Don't merely test to ensure they have been listening. The goal is not to help kids get a 100% but rather help them connect with the story personally.  

We have the best story to share. The God of the universe, who created everything, loved me enough to send his son on a rescue mission to save me and set me free from sin. Even our personal stories are pretty remarkable when we stop and think about it. We were enemies of God. But in his love for us, God pursued us and rescued us. 

Have you used Story of God for Kids? Leave us a note below to tell us how it has gone for you.

**Parts of this post were adapted from the Story of God training created by Soma Communities.