By / Dec 17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

As a younger mom, I was a master at creating Christmas traditions for our little family of five.  Some of these were carried over from my own growing up years (or my husband’s), and a few were new traditions designed just for us. The obvious ones included decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, and opening little windows on an Advent calendar each day.  Others were unique to where we grew up, such as eating tamales on Christmas Eve (Texan folks will get this).  Still, other traditions were, let’s just say, “pinterest fails” such as creating a special activity to do every night of December. I exhausted myself by Dec. 2 and called that one off. Caroling the neighborhood with hot cocoa didn’t last long either—though we still enjoy the cocoa by the fire on cold evenings. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior.

Meaningful Christmas traditions

As my children have grown into teens, I have found that our Christmas traditions have become even more meaningful and important. 

Jesse tree: What used to be an Advent calendar meant to open daily with a piece of chocolate turned into creating a Jesse tree to add an ornament to each day and unveil the entire Christmas story starting with creation. 

Reading Scripture: My husband and I felt it was important that as our kids were getting older, they could begin to understand the full redemptive narrative of Christ, not just the celebration of his birth. So, we let our teens take turns reading the scriptures that point to Jesus throughout the entire Bible—Old Testament and New. We have marveled at the depth we as a family have experienced by adding this tradition to our Christmas season each year.  

Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

Giving more: We have also “flipped the script” on the tradition of gift-giving with our teens. Not too long ago, our kids were lavished with many gifts, from us, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so forth. Now that they are older, we encourage them to be gift-givers, not only receivers. My daughter has a job, so she likes to shop and buy her brothers small things that she knows they want. My boys have no cash, so I encourage them to offer gifts of service, such as offering to do a chore for a sibling, or help their dad with yard work (with a great attitude!). 

Knowing that grandparents enjoy handmade gifts, sometimes they even get around to creating an ornament or simple stocking stuffers to hand out on Christmas morning. More than anything, this tradition has helped them understand that biblical truth, “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In the age of mass consumerism, I am happy for them to receive less and give more out the abundance of love they have for others. This ultimately points to how we worship Jesus, out of the overflow of love for him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

It’s important to note that we haven’t thrown out all the childhood traditions. That would make my “big kids” quite sad. We still bake and decorate sugar cookies with my grandmother’s famous recipe. We still watch The Grinch and Polar Express with hot cocoa, and, yes, we still get a chocolate Advent calendar to count down the days. I may or may not have my very own dark chocolate version each year. However, as the years I have with them under my roof start to grow fewer and fewer, I don’t want to miss the chance to deepen their affections for Jesus. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

By / Nov 27

In a year when every circumstance seems to conspire against feeling festive, traditions have a star role to play. You may not have the typical budget for buying presents; may not have the energy to cut out cookies, take a family photo, or address 100 cards; and may not even be permitted to celebrate with friends and family, but there is one wise custom with the power not only to direct our emotions regardless of our circumstances, but also to fill us with hope. That ritual is the intentional observance of Advent.

I have good memories of “doing Advent” as a young girl. I remember my parents bringing down a centerpiece wreath from the attic and lighting the candles incrementally each Sunday as they read from the Bible. They impressed on me the joy of marking the weeks leading up to Christ’s birth, building expectation. I knew they were intent on teaching us that when it came to Christmas, what mattered most was the birth of mankind’s Savior.

From Jesus to Santa

For generations, Advent was a central part of the liturgical calendar. Christians marked the days, preparing to glory in the birth of Christ. This was the most important part of Christmas. 

Not one to miss an opportunity to sell something, retailers have gotten in on the Advent action. My favorite grocery store tried a few years ago when it introduced a pricey, high-end chocolate Advent countdown calendar. While it’s true that imported Swiss, Dutch, and Belgian chocolates would be a vast improvement over the cheap waxy stuff behind the mini-doors in most dollar-store Advent calendars, they missed the point entirely. Getting serious about Advent has nothing to do with confections, or counting down days till Santa comes, but with conviction: teaching children to eagerly anticipate, and celebrate, the baby who came.  

In the West, Advent is increasingly being viewed from a commercial standpoint. (You might think I’m being a little harsh toward the Advent calendar makers, but lately I’ve even seen calendars for dogs and cats!) We’re letting the world steal away a prime opportunity for teaching children the truth about Jesus’ birth. 

Rethinking priorities

December has often been marked by the flurry of getting more baking done, rushing to the mall before the sales end, and the looming Dec. 25 deadline—that’s what Christmas can feel like: a shopping deadline. What if I don’t have an equal number of presents? What if they sell out of that must-have toy? What if I run out of money before I finish buying for everyone on my list?  

For all our “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sentiments, we tend to do what we most value. Some years I think I must have most valued being busy. Doing the most. Social media only adds to that pressure to perform, and perform in picture-worthy ways. But suddenly that expectation has vanished. No one will expect proof of large, stylish gatherings this year. Quite the opposite. 

No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

The question remains, what will we do with this upheaval?

How we feel about canceled parties and limited travel will reveal a lot about what we value most. Some sorrow over not being able to carry out all of our traditions is natural. But rather than mourning your way through a disappointing December, why not use the opportunity it offers to take measure of what’s most important to you? If you find that worldly ideas about celebrating Christmas have crept in, replace them with hope-filled truth.

Let this be the year we change course. Rather than complaining about all we can’t do this December, embrace this Christmas as a great opportunity to focus on what we can

Trees, books, songs

Wanting to give our own kids more than visions of too much sugar and materialism, we sought to celebrate Advent intentionally early on. The first few years, we read Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments. Then we added some homemade ornaments to accompany the readings and adorn a small tabletop tree. We’ve used family devotionals that include Scripture with a short reflection (Scott James’s The Expected One) as well as a story (Arnold Ytreeide’s Jotham’s Journey), and one that suggested related carols (Christopher Ash’s Repeat the Sounding Joy). 

There is a host of faithful resources to choose from with even more being added this season. Books from John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Barbara Reaoch, Marty Machowski, David Mathis, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth come to mind. For younger ones with busy hands, an activity like Truth78’s Good News of Great Joy, or a do-it-yourself Jesse Tree, or felt-and-ribbon countdown can help build the anticipation children feel as they look forward to Jesus’ birthday. 

The most important aspect of a Christian Advent is that it anticipates Jesus. “For four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus,” says Noel Piper. “That’s what advent means—coming.”

When deciding how to structure your study, look for books and activities that fit your children’s ages. It’s best to keep your readings and activities concise and regular, bearing in mind the attention span of your youngest children. A little every day for 31 days is better than an hour on Dec. 1 that leaves everyone weary of trying again on Dec. 2. Unlike many Christmas traditions that are annual one-time events (think Christmas Eve service, watching your favorite movie, lighting the tree), Advent’s repetition, daily (or weekly) meditation throughout the month, is part of what makes it powerful. The rhythm and routine have a formative effect on children.  

Powerful patterns

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis described ritual as “a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance” (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).

If ever there were a Christmas at risk of being hijacked by our feelings, it’s Christmas 2020. Returning to the rhythms of Advent traditions––and if you’ve never had them, starting them––is more important than ever. The earth may tremble, the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, but we will not fear if God is our refuge (Ps. 46:1-2). No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

By / Nov 26

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leading the Bucs was Dungy’s first head coaching job, and when he arrived in Tampa in 1996, Tampa Bay was among the worst teams in the league. Previous coaches had trained the Buccaneer defense in several complex formations. Defensive captains would try to read what the offense planned to do and then choose the best defensive strategy. They were trying to make the smartest decision possible in the moment and then get their teammates lined up correctly. 

When Dungy arrived, he didn’t bring a more complex playbook. Instead, he simplified Tampa Bay’s approach, building on habits they’d already put in place. His defense had fewer and less complicated formations. And instead of waiting for their captains, he taught every player to read the offense. He wanted them to line up in a split second as a matter of habit. The result was a defensive unit that began to play with greater confidence, began winning, and even made the playoffs the following year.

A simple approach to developing habits

Children’s ministry leaders and family pastors want to equip parents to teach the gospel to their children. But it can be tempting to overthink our approach—to try to build complex ministry programs and strategies for family discipleship. But what if we took Tony Dungy’s simpler and more habit-driven approach? What if we simplified our strategies? Moms and dads, what if we all built little discipleship habits on top of the family rhythms we are already keeping? 

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays. As a matter of tradition and habit, we gather with the family for turkey and the fixings on Thanksgiving and then settle in the family room to watch the football games over the course of the weekend. We set up the tree, hang the stockings and lights, and put on the Martina McBride Christmas album—at least that’s the habit in our house. 

For me, the holiday season was also the time when I learned how to lead my family devotionally. A pastor shared a devotional website with our family, and then we set up a tiny one-and-a-half-foot Christmas tree from the discount store in our living room. As the devotional challenged us, we hung a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree corresponded to the story of a person from Jesus’ family tree. By reading through the devotionals I printed out and hanging the ornaments, we developed a habit of reading the Bible together as a family that stuck with us beyond that first year. 

And here’s the thing. I’m not always consistent with family devotions throughout the year, but the Advent season always seems to draw our family back to time in the Word together. After all, that devotional Christmas tree and other Advent devotionals we’ve collected over the years are kept with our boxes of Christmas decorations. And when the kids see them, they ask, “Which book are we reading this year? Are we going to hang the Bible story ornaments?” Then, as a matter of habit, we’re beckoned back to our habit of discipleship—to the kind of rhythm that the prophet Jeremiah describes as a “well-worn path.”

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays.

Does your local church or family have a devotional path that you walk each Advent season. If not, take advantage of this holiday season to build new discipleship habits on top of the family traditions you’re already keeping. Here is a list of resources that I think you’ll find to be helpful. It includes great picture books to read with preschoolers, devotional adventures—including a few with Bible story ornaments—for grade school kids, and two great books to read with your teens or your spouse. 

Four picture books for preschoolers

Lizzie Laferton’s There’s a Lion in my Nativity! (Good Book Company, 2020) tells the story of a school nativity play. The girl playing Mary thinks she is the star of the show, but as the play goes on, she finds that every scene has been stolen by an unlikely character or object—a tent, a phone, a lion! With warm and colorful illustrations, this rhyming book unpacks the true meaning of Christmas.

Dan DeWitt’s The Bright Light and the Super Scary Darkness (B&H Kids, 2020) reminds kids that the light of the gospel will win in the end. This excellent book for the Advent season emphasizes how Jesus came at Christmas as the Light of the World. It reassures preschool age children who struggle with fear and anxiety and offers them courage in the truth that Jesus’ love remains strong no matter how dark life may seem.

My friend Annie Kratzch’s Just Nicholas: A Story Older Than Santa (Matthias Media, 2015) is one of my favorites. It tells the true story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who gave what he had to help others because he was grateful for what God had given him. As a young boy, Nicholas learned the story of Jesus from his parents. When he grew up, he lived out his Christian faith in a unique and selfless way that we still celebrate today.

Also, my newest Christmas book, Jesus Came for Me: The True Story of Christmas (New Growth, 2020) is a durable board book that teaches toddlers and young preschoolers that Jesus Christ, our great God, was born as a little baby, and his birth is good news and great joy for all people! The book begins with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah and ends with the visit of the wise men. The book’s three stories can be read to young toddlers and ready by first readers. They’ll help your little one know that Jesus is always present, and that he helps us to believe and wait for him.

Four devotional adventures for school-age children

Our friend, Scott James, has written The Littlest Watchman (Good Book Company, 2017), which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the “root from Jesse” prophecy. The book has an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making craft ornaments.

Unexpected Gift by Annie Kratzch and Tessa Janes (10Publishing, 2020) tells the story of the incarnation and the story of the people who hear that news. The accompanying activity book includes 25 hands-on crafts and 25 Bible verse ornaments that will help children to prepare for Christmas day. 

Ronnie Martin’s The Best Gift Ever Given: A 25-Day Journey Through Advent (Harvest House, 2019) teaches kids that toys and games are great, but the best gifts are from God, because they last a lifetime and beyond. This devotional will help your family understand the Bible points toward Jesus. Each day kids learn a key Scripture passage, interact with modern illustrations that correspond with the passage, answer open-ended questions that help to apply the day’s reading, and read a prayer that reinforces the Bible passage’s key truth.

Marty Machowski’s Prepare Him Room (New Growth, 2014) unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ’s coming during each week of Advent. The accompanying family activities—which include baking cookies and taking them to the neighbor with the best Christmas decorations—are a great way to form family habits, and the accompanying four-week children’s ministry curriculum can help groups of churches use it during Advent season as well.

Two books to warm the hearts of teens and adults

Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019) helps us take a fresh look at the Christmas story by introducing some of the minor characters that played a part in Jesus birth. His book can help your teen to slow down and engage their imagination. And the discussion questions and Christmas song suggestions at the end of each chapter make this book perfect for engaging your whole family.

Finally, Russ Ramsey’s The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP Books, 2018) reminds readers of how for centuries God’s people awaited the coming of a Savior. In the midst of a world of trouble, they hoped for one who would deliver them from evil and restore them to true life. The story encompasses the whole of the Old Testament and all of human history, unveiling God’s long-suffering, loving pursuit of his people.

By / Nov 25

Have you heard about the gender-fluid doll from Mattel? Yes, you read that sentence correctly. Last year, Mattel debuted The Creatable World doll collection. With the toy, children are able to select the doll’s hair style as well as its type of dress in order to “give [children] the freedom” to make the doll a boy or a girl or a boy again. The “doll line [is] designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in,” Mattel said.

What would you do if one of your relatives gifted this (or another present of a similar type) to your child on Christmas? How would you react? Would you let her or him keep it? How would you explain what is wrong with the toy? Would you instruct your child that he or she could only play with one set of accessories that corresponds to one gender?

To a certain degree, toys are never just toys. They are also teachers. Baby dolls “teach” little girls the basics of mothering. Legos teach children the basics of engineering and construction. And Mattel’s latest doll line teaches children switching genders is normal. 

As present-shopping kicks into full swing this Christmas season, Christian parents should ask themselves a key question: What is this toy teaching my child(ren), whether inadvertently or purposefully?

All toys are manufactured in a fallen world. They are all made by sinners, people who apart from Christ have thoughts and actions that are dominated by the “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). This does not mean every toy manufacturer is consumed thoroughly with these desires, driving them to create toys that directly push one or more of these sin categories. Nor does it mean every toy line is corrupted by the sin of the people who create them. It does mean, though, their work is affected, to one degree or another, by sin. So Christian parents must determine to what degree the world’s brokenness may be communicated through the toys we purchase for our child(ren). 

Here are three big scriptural truths parents should consider when purchasing toys:

First, mankind was made to image God’s character.Mankind was made “in the image of God” (Gen.1:26–27). The implication is that we are not the reference points for our own existence nor the source for the purpose of our existence. The reference point for who we are—the reason for our existence—is found in God.

The invisible God was made fully visible in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. As a consequence, mankind has the benefit of knowing who God is. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself as the universe’s Sovereign, the ultimate Judge, the model Father, and, through Christ, as the Creator. Mankind also knows God the Son united with human flesh. He is made manifest as the dearest Friend, the Divine Humanitarian who cares for the least of these, the Good Shepherd, and the Savior of sinners. 

Mankind was designed to show forth these dimensions of God’s life in miniature. We were made to image God, to display, without addition or modification, who God is in character, deed, and word. In light of that truth, we must ask, do the toys we purchase communicate—explicitly or implicitly—that mankind has been made to image God? Here are some great questions to ask:

  • With respect to God’s character, we might ask, do these toys communicate God’s character or the character of the sinful nature? Do they promote love, patience, beauty, creativity, justice, compassion, and sacrifice?
  • Humanity is flawed and does not always image God’s will perfectly. Minifigures in a toy line will often replicate this reality, but we must ask, are the flaws glorified by the toy company or are they presented as negative qualities that must be overcome, changed, or properly dealt with?
  • With a series of toys, it’s also helpful to know the narrative arc of that particular toy line’s “universe.” Does this narrative align with biblical virtues based on God’s character or does it promote secular beliefs? A case in point would be the Harry Potter line of toys. I don’t believe it’s wrong to buy Harry Potter toys for a child, but I do think it’s unwise for a parent not to also help the child understand that the spells and other wizardly aspects of Harry’s world are fictional. It’s also helpful to see—as Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs points out—that the books “are always on the side of life.”
  • Another question related to a series’ storyline is this, does good triumph in the end? Is there justice? Justice figures prominently in God’s character. God sometimes executes justice during a person’s life in accordance with his sovereign timing, but he also delays justice until the end of the age. Justice for Satan, for instance, has been delayed but it will one day come in full in accordance with God’s perfect will. How does a toy series’ storyline mirror God’s justice? Does justice come immediately? Is it delayed? Does it come at all? It’s wise for parents to have conversations with their kids about the presence or absence of justice in a toy’s story.

Second, mankind was made to reflect God’s design in our life and actions. Mankind is not the source of his own life or her own skills or features. Mankind’s existence reflects God the Creator’s discretion. There is a proper use of the life we have been given, and there is an improper, destructive use of it. Our skills and features reflect his beauty, intellect, and power. Just as the moon reflects light from the sun and not vice versa, so we should not act as our own originator and determining force. So, we might ask: 

  • Do the toys on our to-buy list portray mankind as the author and executor of his own destiny? This is where the Mattel toys miss the mark so severely. It is not possible to both follow God’s design and make your own “Creatable World” where, if you so desire, you can change your gender.
  • But the danger of building a “reflection” apart from God isn’t limited to gender-fluid toys. The danger of a corrupting philosophy can be equal in toys that are gender stereotyped. Does a girls’ toy series promote physical beauty as the ultimate achievement? Is the perfecting of one’s appearance the main point of the toy? Does a boys’ toy series advocate a certain form of masculinity based on occupation or physical shape?

Finally, mankind was created to represent God with our words. A representative speaks and acts on behalf of another person. He does not create and develop his own talking points. Rather, the representative shares the thoughts, communicates the emotions, and clarifies the desires of another. A defining verse on speech is Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech be always with grace.” Paul Tripp explains this verse by saying our words are to “bring health into a person’s life.”

By being intentional with the gifts you select and by having good conversations with your child, your children can both learn to identify worldviews that are contrary to God’s design and also form a more God-honoring worldview.

Speech is to be used for enrichment, not as a wrecking ball or a poison. To speak with grace, God’s representative must listen to gracious speech. Sin-filled speech can easily pollute the mind and corrosively impact the heart. So we must take great care—particularly when selecting books, videos, and music for our kids. 

  • On a basic level, does the media being considered advocate virtue or vice? Does it present pride, lust, and materialism in a positive light or a negative one? Does it mock virtue or present a diluted version of it? Does it describe or hype sinful activities done in secret of which Christians should be ignorant (Eph. 5:12)?
  • Finally, does the media being considered advocate a humanistic worldview? Is it filled with self-exalting words that glorify people and not God?

This is just a sampling of questions you may consider as you look for gifts for your children this Christmas season. As you consider these questions, you might ask, do concerning answers to one or more of these questions mean that a toy, book, video, or music shouldn’t be purchased? Maybe, maybe not. As mentioned before regarding the Harry Potter series, buying some toys may not be wrong, but it would be unwise not to have a conversation with your child about the toy and its universe’s good and bad elements. 

Every toy that has been created is shaped by its creator’s particular worldview. And as your children play with toys, they are exposed to the philosophy of its designer—a philosophy packed with views on the origin of life, the concept of life (self-identity), the purpose of life, and the utility of life (morality). This worldview can shape young hearts and children’s views of who people are and how they are to live in both helpful and harmful ways.

But by being intentional with the gifts you select and by having good conversations with your child, your children can both learn to identify worldviews that are contrary to God’s design and also form a more God-honoring worldview.

By / Nov 24

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are commonly associated with spikes in emotional distress. According to a 2014 survey from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, nearly two-thirds of adults with diagnosed mental health conditions said the holidays made their symptoms worse, with nearly 25% describing themselves as “a lot” worse.

What might we expect with the holidays falling in the middle of a pandemic? How can churches promote connection and provide support during the most unique Christmas season most of us have ever experienced? Here are five ways churches might support the mental health concerns of members and attendees in the days and weeks ahead.

1. Prepare to offer mental health support, especially during the two weeks after Christmas. An article in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience examined the scientific research on psychiatric symptoms associated with the Christmas holiday. While more people report feeling sad or unhappy over the holidays, reductions in mental health service utilization and decreases in self-harm, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations are observed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But this is followed by a spike in psychiatric emergencies of as much as 40% above baseline rates shortly thereafter, when many church offices close and staff take time off.

Consider how someone from your church might access help in a crisis. If your church doesn’t have a current referral list of mental health professionals, treatment centers, and facilities for individuals or families in need, this is a great time to compile such a list. According to LifeWay Research, only 27% of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, even though the church is often the first place families turn to for help. 

2. Seek to maintain as many of your church’s Christmas traditions as possible during the pandemic. While most evangelical churches don’t have lots of rituals, customs and traditions are especially important in unpredictable times, providing relief from anxiety by promoting a sense of order. Consider how your church might incorporate collective rituals in special events during the holidays. An example of a collective ritual is the tradition of everyone holding lit candles while singing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve services. Such rituals promote connection with others engaged in the activity. Consider how families unable to attend in person because of COVID-19 might meaningfully participate in these rituals during online services. 

3. Prepare regular attendees and guests for modifications to their customary church experiences. Children and adults with anxiety disorders have brains that are “hard-wired” to overestimate the risk involved with new or unfamiliar situations. A picture is truly worth a thousand words in relieving anxiety. One strategy for reducing anxiety with in-person services is to take pictures or video of the cleaning crew keeping worship spaces as safe as possible and post the images prominently on your social media platforms. Take lots of pictures during worship services in the weeks leading up to Christmas for your website, especially pages guests search for information on special holiday services. 

Given that attendance at in-person worship services is running at 36% of pre-COVID levels, many people haven’t yet returned to church—especially attendees with anxiety disorders. The more your members and guests can visualize their experience at church, the easier it will be to overcome their anxiety about attending live services.

4. Consider the unique emotional needs of college students and young adults during COVID-19. Young adults represent the population most affected by mental health concerns during the pandemic. This study reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression among adults ages 18-24 during October. More than one-third described suicidal thoughts—10 times the rates observed as recently as 2013-14. Many college students will find themselves back home for two months or longer, disconnected from the support of counselors and campus ministries. 

There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

The Grace Alliance offers Redefine Grace, a 10 session, Christian-based mental health education and support group model to encouragement young adults with mental health struggles. Student and young adult ministries might consider how they can address loneliness and social isolation experienced by youth home for an extended time. 

5. Finally, take steps to ensure the people of your church aren’t forgotten in this unique season. The children’s ministry team at my church is calling every family they haven’t seen since indoor worship resumed in early October. How many attendees have left your church since the onset of the pandemic without being noticed? Some may have stayed away because of medical vulnerabilities or the need to care for someone at high risk. Others may be withdrawing from church and other important life activities because of depression. Consider how the people of the church might mobilize to look after one another. 

Cards, notes, phone calls, letters, e-mails, texts, and offers of prayer all represent important touch points. Encourage seniors to call one another, small groups to check in on members who live alone, Bible study leaders to reaching out to folks who have dropped off Zoom sessions, children’s ministry to make cards for the elderly, and student ministry to run errands for individuals with disabilities or medical conditions that have left them homebound during COVID-19.

If you’re a church member, consider how you might encourage and support your ministry leaders. Ministry demands upon pastors and church staff are overwhelming in a “typical” December. Factor in discouragement from lower attendance, economic concerns from diminished offerings, and disruptions in family routines, and our leaders are especially vulnerable. Take the initiative to check on others in your church and encourage others to do so to relieve some of the burdens on your pastors during this season.

We have what hurting people most need: hope! It’s a hope that comes from knowing and believing in Christ. There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

By / Nov 20

In this episode, Josh, Brent, and Lindsay discuss Coronavirus being as bad as it has ever been, the CDC warning people not to travel for Thanksgiving, the FDA approving at home rapid tests, Biden filling the west wing, and Michael J. Fox. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jared Kennedy with “Why every Christian should care about family ethics: Understanding what the Bible teaches and recognizing we’re all part of a family,” Jamie Aten and Kent Annan with “What you need for Spiritual First Aid during COVID: Biblical and research-based guidance to help churches respond to needs in a disaster-filled world,” and the ERLC staff with an Explainer on “What you should know about the COVID-19 RNA vaccines.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Dr. Russell Moore for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Dr. Moore

Russell Moore is President of the ERLC. In this role, he leads the organization to connect the agenda of the kingdom of Christ to the cultures of local congregations for the sake of the gospel. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of several books, including The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, and The Courage to Stand Facing Your Fear without Losing Your Soul. He and his wife Maria are the parents of five boys. You can connect with him on Twitter: @drmoore

ERLC Content


  1. It’s as bad as ever
  2. CDC Warning for Thanksgiving
  3. FDA approves first rapid at-home test
  4. Biden fills his West Wing
  5. Race To 2020
  7. Americans’ finances are in best shape in decades
  8. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Test for Self-Testing at Home
  9. The Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit
  10. Michael J. Fox is retiring from acting due to declining health


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  • The Christmas We Didn’t Expect by David Matthis. 25 daily reflections for Advent will help you to adore Jesus—the one who came to save us and make our futures certain.
By / May 22

On Monday, Americans will observe Memorial Day, a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces.

Here are five facts you should know about this day of remembrance:

1. Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military both in wartime or peacetime.

2. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. Three years after the Civil War, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the head of an organization of Union veterans, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 since it was believed flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

3. Until after World War I, Decoration Day was a holiday reserved for the remembrance of the Civil War dead. After the Great War the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

4. Here are the number of veteran deaths from 1941-2020:

World War II (1941-1946)
Battle Deaths: 291,557
Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater): 113,842

Korean War (1950-1953)
Battle Deaths: 33,739
Other Deaths (In Theater): 2,835

Vietnam War (1964-1975)
Battle Deaths: 47,434
Other Deaths (In Theater): 10,786

Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990- 1991)
Battle Deaths: 148
Other Deaths (In Theater): 235

Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
Hostile Deaths: 3,481
Non-Hostile Deaths: 937

Operation Freedom's Sentinel (Afghanistan)
Hostile Deaths: 64
Non-Hostile Deaths: 26

Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq)
Hostile Deaths: 3,481
Non-Hostile Deaths: 930

Operation New Dawn (Iraq insurgency)
Hostile Deaths: 38
Non-Hostile Deaths: 35

Operation Inherent Resolve (against ISIS)
Hostile Deaths: 21
Non-Hostile Deaths: 74

(Note: Battle deaths means the death occurred in or near the “theater” of battle while “non-theater” means the deaths occurred outside the combat zone.)

5. In 2000, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act” which designates 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each year as the National Moment of Remembrance, in “honor of the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.” Public Law 106-579 encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at that time for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

By / Dec 23

Christmas is almost here! For many of us, the Christmas season is a wonderful time of reflection and spending time with family and friends. Most families also have traditions that they observe every year. Often, these traditions have been passed down from parents or grandparents over the years, and serve as a way to remember loved ones who may not be with us to celebrate. Every tradition is different – some are light-hearted and fun, while others are meaningful and designed to remind us of the biblical truths that are at the heart of the Christmas season. 

Here are some of the ways a few ERLC staff members celebrate Christmas.

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik: Policy Director

My favorite tradition is going to see a live performance of Handel's Messiah. The entire performance is Scripture, and it’s such a powerful reminder of the gospel.

Amanda Hays: Digital Strategist

Our traditions are fairly normal. We decorate a gingerbread house, use Jesse Tree ornaments to celebrate Advent, listen to Frank Sinatra & Bing Crosby Christmas music, watch claymation Rudolph and friends movies, listen to Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God” (or go see it), and make sausage pinwheels for Christmas morning.

Jason Thacker: Creative Director

Outside of our typical traditions, we pick out gifts for our World Vision kid or for families on Baptist Global Response like chickens, goats, and medical supplies. Our kids love picking these things out. This year, we are trying to bless the nurses caring for my wife and she gets treatment for cancer with Starbucks and other gifts.

Bobby Reed: Chief Financial Officer

Our family has two main traditions, among others. First, when we began having children we committed to be home for Christmas—our home. We might travel at New Year’s, but our kids would wake up in their own beds Christmas morning, and we would set our own traditions. 

Second, we spread our gift giving/opening throughout the day. We typically open presents in shifts and one at a time. So, we might open all of the presents from a particular aunt or grandparent who is out of town and could not be there before brunch, then another after brunch. In the early years, we would video each of those times on a VHS recorder and be able to show those recordings to the respective family members. 

This year, we may open presents from [our son] Timothy, who will be in Europe, via Skype, so that he can be a part of the experience as much as possible. Between brunch and lunch and watching Christmas movies/shows and opening presents, we usually wrap up with everything by late afternoon or so.

Brent Leatherwood: Director of Strategic Partnerships

For our family, we start the Christmas season on Thanksgiving. We try to instill thankful hearts in our three children for the coming Christmas season and put the birth of Jesus front and center as the single greatest gift we are given. We also have our children open their first Christmas gifts on Thanksgiving night—new Christmas pajamas and Christmas books to read. Finally, once the kids have gone to bed, I wrap up the evening with the older family members—especially if my parents or my wife’s parents are in town—by watching “Christmas Vacation”!

Jill Waggoner: Deputy Press Secretary

My mother’s family on her father’s side has been getting together for a Christmas party for about 65 years. I think I’ve missed one when we lived away, but she’s never missed one, and it’s very important to her. My mother is now the organizer of these Christmas parties. We make that a priority because we want to teach our children that this type of family is a treasure that a lot of people don’t have, and we want them to honor the older generations of our family and understand their commitment to them. We average about 75–100 people!

Elizabeth Bristow: Press Secretary

Now that our children are a little older, we are establishing new traditions as a family. Each night in December we read an Advent devotional before bed and talk about how it relates to the coming of Christ, our Savior. As a family, we also go caroling at assisted living homes around Waco and participate in the Operation Christmas Child boxes and World Vision sponsorship by buying a nicer gift for our girl in El Salvador. These are just a few traditions we enjoy doing together!

Daniel Darling: VP of Communications

Our family has several traditions. First, we start listening to Christmas music sometime in November and we don’t feel the least bit bad about it. Secondly, we buy a new ornament every year, either from a place we’ve visited or just something to mark out that year. Our kids just love decorating the tree, evoking memories of Christmases come and gone. We also have each of our four kids pick a name out of the hat of another kid and we take them to the store to do the stocking shopping. This allows them to think of other siblings instead of themselves. 

Of course, our very favorite tradition, one that I had as a child, is attending Christmas Eve service. This is one of my favorite worship times of the year. I love lighting candles. I love signing the old Christmas hymns and carols. I can hardly make it through Hark the Herald without weeping. 

By / Jul 4

The Fourth of July always comes with fireworks, but that’s the case this year in more than just one way. America is in a season of uniquely grating cultural strife. There are fireworks of division detonating all around us. And the more times you scroll through Twitter, or watch nighttime cable news or late-night comedy shows, the more the dynamite of our disagreements are exaggerated, as the debates move well past the point of helpful.

Yet here we are, at a time of great division, with a holiday meant to celebrate our national unity. So, as Christians, what do we make of this Independence Day?

A hometown Fourth

My hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, was a wonderful place to grow up. The city was founded in 1941 as a meticulously planned municipality with preserved moss-covered live oaks and winding downtown streets literally named This Way, That Way, and Winding Way. The city knows how to celebrate holidays, especially the Fourth of July. Most towns across America celebrate with fireworks, but none compare to the City of Enchantment’s (my hometown’s nickname) display. 

I’ve enjoyed watching fireworks shows from the beaches of Seaside, Florida, to the lake shores of Conroe, Texas, but my hometown’s are my favorite. Maybe this is the effect of nostalgia, but the size of the show is impressive even to visitors. What truly makes the day special to me, though, is the way such a celebration can unify a city as families and friends gather outside.

Each year, my family enjoyed the holiday at a party hosted by a family in our church whose home was perfectly situated for a great view of the night’s display. Their annual party drew families from the church and neighborhood. The word ‘smorgasbord’ was created to describe the spread of hot dogs, burgers, and red, white, and blue desserts. My favorite was the coffee punch, the host’s own recipe of Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell ice cream and cold brew coffee. Those are special memories, especially the year when the wind was strong enough to carry ash from the fireworks and drop it on their driveway. My dad was among those pelted.

Our ultimate citizenship

These memories are part of what it means to be home and have a sense of belonging in a place where you are welcomed in community. I am thankful for the one that has carried my family through the highs and lows of life, like church planting, weddings, and health battles. America is my home, and Lake Jackson is my hometown, but neither will be forever—and that’s actually comforting to me.

As a Christian, I am thankful that many of these people who make up such wonderful memories are my brothers and sisters in the family of God. When Jesus tells us that this world is not our home, he reminds us that while we are citizens of the nations where he has placed us, they will all pass away one day. For the Christian, it is only our citizenship in the Kingdom of God that lasts forever. My colleague Andrew Walker writes more on this in How Augustine helps American Christians understand July 4. Walker writes, 

“Augustine helps us to love our country the way it is supposed to be loved biblically. Augustine helps us understand that we as Christians can love our country, but we must understand what forces drive it, and what separates it from the Kingdom of God. Augustine is concerned with us loving our God more than our country.” 

This means we love this country and celebrate the day of our independence with gratitude, but we do so in ways that honor our citizenship to Christ’s Kingdom above where he has placed us here and now. Walker concludes his article, “on this July 4, be an American, be a Christian American even. But recognize that the former ought to be more defining than the latter.”

Cultivating community where we are

For our second Independence Day in Washington, my wife and I had a friend visiting from Texas. We walked to the U.S. Capitol from our apartment on Capitol Hill for the annual Capitol Fourth concert that airs live on PBS. The show concludes with patriotic songs from the National Symphony Orchestra as the fireworks display fires off above the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. After the show ended, we walked back home through the rowhouse neighborhood. Block after block, neighbors were out and sending their own firecrackers into the sky until late in the night. And in those encore fireworks is a lesson we shouldn’t miss.

Holidays like the Fourth of July offer opportunities to meet our actual neighbors. In an age of epidemic loneliness in our country, the basic things, like knowing your neighbors, become monumental. There are many reasons why researchers account for the increasing loneliness. Technology changes in vocation, declining marriage rates, and even increasingly polarized politics are all, in part, to blame. As difficult as these new challenges and divisions are to face, we must remember that this is the age in which God saw fit to place you and me. This is our country, and though it’s imperfect, it’s ours to steward.

In Onward, Russell Moore encourages Christians to consider our calling as “an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens.” He continues, “We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God ‘and his righteousness’” (Matt. 6:33).

As you celebrate this holiday, take a moment to meet someone new in your neighborhood. Introduce yourself to those also outside celebrating this shared land of ours. There are people all around us who long for the kind of love that some of us know from hometown memories. As the church, we are to be Christ’s instruments of redemption by showing people the way to our Father in heaven beginning with simple, ordinary hospitality. Then, as the fireworks burst above your town, consider praying for our country and, even more importantly, your neighbors by name. Let’s be people of peace in this culture of chaos. Let’s pray for God’s Kingdom to come. This Independence Day, let’s love our neighbor as ourselves.

By / Jul 3

Over the course of my dissertation, I did a fair amount of reading in the great church figure, Augustine. In his famous work, The City of God Against the Pagans (Book 19, Chapter 17), Augustine reflects on what brings peace between the City of God and City of Man and how the City of God understands itself living amid the City of Man. Augustine writes:

Thus the things necessary for this mortal life are used by both kinds of men and families alike, but each has its own peculiar and widely different aim in using them. The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life. The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and lives by faith, makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away. Consequently, so long as it lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city, though it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it.


Participating in political life 

In this first paragraph, Augustine says that the purpose of political order in a fallen world is for there to be earthly peace through just laws. He goes on to say that Christians, as citizens of earthly political orders, are to obey these laws as well. In the sense that Christians are to likewise contribute to the good through following just laws, Christians and non-Christians can share in a common life together. What Augustine is saying is that Christians should be active participants in earthly political communities.

Pointing toward redemption 

But below, Augustine notices a contrast. He says that the fallen political order is bound to get it wrong on matters of religion, because the world is torn asunder by hatred and strife. The fallen world is incapable of pointing itself toward its ultimate end—redemption in Christ. Yet, even though there’s an antithesis between the City of God and the City of Man, Augustine says that the City of God should make use of the laws of the City of Man in order to point the City of Man toward its ultimate end—redemption in Christ. While the City of God is going to find itself bombarded by assault and persecution, Augustine insists that the City of Man, by being faithful to its calling, is actually serving society by pointing it toward Christ.

. . . it has come to pass that the two cities could not have common laws of religion, and that the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions, except in so far as the minds of their enemies have been alarmed by the multitude of the Christians and quelled by the manifest protection of God accorded to them. This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God. When we shall have reached that peace, this mortal life shall give place to one that is eternal, and our body shall be no more this animal body which by its corruption weighs down the soul, but a spiritual body feeling no want, and in all its members subjected to the will. In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life.

Learning from Augustine

As Christians in America celebrate July 4, what lessons can we learn from Augustine in how we understand our citizenship and love of country?

Loving God more than country

Augustine helps us to love our country the way it is supposed to be loved biblically. As Christians, we inhabit a world, and it is a world whose commitments and loves may at times overlap with the values and ethics of the Kingdom, but at root, the forces behind each city and each participant are at cosmic odds. Christians must understand this. It helps us calibrate a posture of grateful, yet critical distance. Augustine helps us understand that we as Christians can love our country, but we must understand what forces drive it, and what separates it from the Kingdom of God. Augustine is concerned with us loving our God more than our country.

Seeking the good of society

Yet, Augustine calls the Christian to active participation in his or her social order. We seek the earthly peace of our society as the Prophet Jeremiah reminds us (Jer. 29), and Christians should take advantage of whatever tranquility is present in a society that we might shepherd such tranquility for the furtherance of the gospel. This means Christians are among the most attentive, engaged citizens. We know we have a stake in the laws that our land passes. We know that the nation-state cannot direct man toward his or her religious end, but it can organize human society in the direction of morality and flourishing. We obey laws to every extent that they do not violate the conscience. At the same time, a critical posture helps us understand that there are times of necessary dissent—that patriotism to the Kingdom of God might look unpatriotic to the kingdom of man.

Embracing a diverse society

Augustine helps us understand that society is differentiated, pluralistic, and full of people who are different. Notice, though, that Augustine says this is expected, and Christians cannot expect to override or overwhelm this diversity with its own hegemony or dominance. We are not able to take control of the social order and thoroughly Christianize it (and we possibly do great harm when we think we really can). We speak, preach, testify, witness, and vote. But we do with a mind toward humble participation in the larger creational order. 

As Augustine writes, “not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.” Augustine believes a modicum of peace is achievable even amid great diversity, and Christians do not complain about not being in charge. We welcome our place in society toward a view of our ministry to it.

Why, ultimately, though do Christians care about fallen society? Why do we not jettison responsibility for seeing righteousness manifested? Even as pilgrims, we are to love our society and our neighbor in hopes that we might direct our society and our neighbor toward their ultimate end in God:

In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life.

On this July 4, be an American, be a Christian American even. But recognize that the former ought to be more defining than the latter. And for participation as both, exercise responsibility and gratitude.