By / Jun 21

The word calling in contemporary evangelical culture often implies something “spiritual.” The Lord calls some to ministry in the church. But we must not let the fact that God calls some to serve the church as their full-time job eclipse the vocational calling the majority of church members receive. God calls Christians to other work, too. Evangelical culture often  underemphasizes the importance of our work outside the church, leading Christians to undervalue their own contributions to the kingdom through their vocation. 

But God does not see work this way. Though providing for ourselves and our families is important, work is not merely a means to a payday. Beyond provision, we extol the work of pastors and missionaries for the kingdom. Likewise, we should not assume the work of teachers, fast food employees, lawyers, janitors, and entrepreneurs is any less important and essential to the kingdom. God calls every Christian in their totality of being. He is Lord over all, including our thoughts, worship, and work. God cares about his people’s work and how that work will further his kingdom.

Considering Christ’s authority over our work, we must dissolve the paradigm that Christians can participate in genuinely secular work. If a Christian can describe his work as secular, not religious in any specific sense, he has a wrong understanding of God’s intention for our work. God commands us to serve him with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deut 6:5). This comprehensive devotion to the Lord must include working with the zeal we have for serving him. 

Faithful Christian labor advances God’s kingdom

Our temptation may be to think the kingdom utility of vocation is restricted to evangelism. What this sentiment has in fervor, it lacks in understanding. Evangelism is a crucial responsibility of every Christian. But Christ uses more than our witness in the workplace—he also uses the work itself. Think of the work of the men who rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls after Cyrus released them from captivity. Nehemiah recorded, in detail, the men of Israel repairing the gate’s bolts and bars and repairing portions of the wall that were in ruins. While this work may seem mundane or even secular to our modern ears, rebuilding the city wall was a holy task (Neh 3). These builders were gifted with skill and were the means God used to renew what already belonged to him. 

God’s plan for Israel’s revival after her captivity in Babylon was to ordain the preaching of the Word and the labors of the men who rebuilt the wall. In our secularizing culture, it is easy to minimize the impact of our work and forget that it is ordained by God. In a fallen world, work can be tedious, corrupt, or unfulfilling, but when we, as Christians, work under the lordship of Christ, he uses our work as a means to bless the nations. 

Faithful Christian labor glorifies God

When we discuss Christian service, it typically relates to the ministry of the church, but God tells all of us to “work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). The work God bestowed upon Adam was to cultivate and protect the Garden. Would many in the church today recognize a gardener or a security guard as one with a holy calling who glorified God? Remember also the Roman centurion who petitioned Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus never called this soldier to leave his post and take up the specific ministry of the Word. 

The young teenager in his first job as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool may think he is simply trading time for money, but this perspective is impoverished. The transformed Christian should work differently than the non-believer. His job is to glorify God in whatever he does. Genuine Christians should recognize the kingdom impact of their vocation and reject the error that work is only temporal. We must work in the light of eternity. Busing tables at a restaurant may not appear particularly religious, but God cares how the Christian employee does his job. Bus tables to the glory of God.

The challenge and responsibility each of us must reckon with is trusting that God will use the results of our labor to advance his will. For example, who may God be redeeming by preserving life through the careful work of a bus driver or the food produced by a farmer? My particular vocation does not appear outwardly religious, but God calls me to serve in my job as if I were serving Christ. As a leader, I know my actions affect the men I serve. I still wonder how God will use my efforts for his kingdom. But this I know, he cares how I conduct myself, and success is more than a paycheck that provides money for my family and church. Though I do not know to what extent God will use my efforts, God-honoring results are my objective.

Although your job may appear secular, a Christian’s efforts are never merely temporal. Christ has dominion over your whole life—including your vocation. Even if it is difficult to see, Christ uses your work as an instrument to advance his kingdom by making him known and preparing the world, one step at a time, for the day when all things will be made new. Let us labor with anticipation and in faith that the Christ-empowered work of our hands is reaping eternal benefits.

By / Apr 18

Prior to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the opioid epidemic was the healthcare crisis that grabbed and held our attention. In the State of Tennessee, where I live, deaths related to drug overdoses increased by 18% from 2018 to 2019.12021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30 

In Wilson County, local law enforcement was speed-tracking resources and training to curb overdoses induced by Fentanyl-laced opioids. African American pastors, particularly, were conducting more funerals of congregants who lost their battle with addiction. And initiated by the county mayor’s office, a task force was established in 2018 to bring addiction awareness, education, and prevention practices to our affluent, upper-middle class community.

The COVID pandemic, however, did not curb opioid use and abuse. It merely moved it out of plain view, but only temporarily. Substance abuse and overdoses continue at alarming rates along with other mental health challenges affecting neighbors of all ages. In our community, for example, local middle school administrators are forced to call an ambulance almost daily due to suicidal or homicidal ideations from middle school students. Social-emotional challenges not only hinder a student’s ability to learn, but create a difficult environment for both students and faculty in our public schools. 

The opioid crisis is a devastating symptom of a profound spiritual, emotional, and relational  brokenness that affects far too many of our closest neighbors. Loving our neighbors, then, calls the church to move into this brokenness to both restore those already trapped by addiction and to build a robust, comprehensive disciple-making model that prevents the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction from ever beginning.

3 steps your church can take 

Consider these three steps your church can take to break your community free from the opioid crisis:

1. View substance abuse and addiction as a Great Commission issue.

Spiritual lostness produces brokenness, and too often that brokenness is called addiction. Pastor Robby Gallaty said that many pastors view people with addiction as “those drug heads.” The implication is that those who battle drug addiction exist in a separate category of humanity — perhaps a category Jesus cannot or will not redeem.

Many religious people during Jesus’ ministry viewed the lame, blind, and demon-possessed in a similar way. But Jesus made the most marginalized people in the community central to his ministry offering them both spiritual life and physical healing. 

Our Great Commission mandate means the marginalized are not marginalized in our church or in our ministry. It means we remove the stigma of addiction, and invite those who are suffering to come near. 

It means pastors preach on the subject and that our evangelism training, small group ministry, and disciple making strategy include practical help and lasting hope for every neighbor carrying all kinds of sin and brokenness, including that of substance abuse, addiction, and other mental health challenges. 

2. Respond to substance abuse and addiction in collaboration with community partners.

Local churches should be a place of healing for those who struggle with addiction, but no one church alone can provide all the resources necessary. Some churches offer a recovery program, but not all can. Some churches provide counseling, but not all can. Sometimes the need is acute, and a church is simply not prepared to provide the assistance needed.

But when churches collaborate with other church and community partners, including healthcare providers and social services, they have access to more resources that can help them help their neighbors in crisis.

Through the State of Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, for example, churches can join the network of Recovery Congregations. As a Recovery Congregation, a church agrees to be a place of help and healing. Few churches can do everything, but every church can do something, and in turn connect to other churches and local agencies that offer more specialized assistance. 

In our community, the organization called DrugFree Wilco provides awareness, education, and opportunities for churches and other community groups to serve our vulnerable friends and neighbors well. There could be similar organizations near you. 

As churches walk with people who are struggling with addiction, community partnerships allow us to serve our neighbors more effectively than we ever could alone.

3. Prevent substance abuse and addiction through an incarnational disciple-making strategy.

Much of our efforts related to the opioid epidemic are reactionary. We meet someone struggling with addiction, and we respond by giving practical help and sharing the gospel. That is the correct response, and there will always be a need for us to minister to human needs in this way.

But for long-term progress, perhaps churches can evaluate how we take on the task of disciple making. In addition to teaching the next generation already in our student ministries, perhaps we can consider efforts that prepare, encourage, and send out believers to live as missionaries among people who have not yet attended our church or the programs we offer.

As we root believers in the riches of God’s Word equipping them to make disciples, we can also incentivize them to build significant relationships with neighbors outside of our church.  

I’m honored to lead a coalition of churches working together for the transformation of our community. As we give believers the opportunity to serve in the public schools, in addiction recovery programs, in poverty alleviation initiatives, and in foster care programs, we move God’s people into the public square. These are not programs the church must manage or can always measure, but they help believers live present with people in their brokenness in order to serve, teach, and influence them to follow Jesus with us. 

This incarnational approach to disciple making is less programmatic, and more personal. It’s also less measurable in the short term, but perhaps creates long-term, sustainable transformation for our closest neighbors and in the social structures of our community. 

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    2021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30
By / Apr 11

We are emerging from the two deadliest years in our country’s history. Let that sink in. There’s a reason your Facebook feed has been filled with more memorial posts than usual, that your own calendar has beckoned you to attend more funerals than you have in years — if you were even able to be present. Many of us are more than ready to return to the before times, when death was some far-off reality, something we could deal with later. But — as the pandemic gives way to war claiming innocent lives in Ukraine — the Church has a unique opportunity to offer to the world words for what it is enduring. God’s people also have a chance to extend to the grieving a hope that lives even in the face of death. 

No longer running from death

From 2019 to 2020, the death rate in the United States jumped by nearly 19%, and preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates it jumped another 2% in 2021. If you survived the last two years, it’s likely you know someone who didn’t. 

For me, it was my mom. I feared losing her for most of the 20 years since she was first diagnosed with cancer when I was in the seventh grade. But when her death came in 2020, I was surprised by God’s kindness hidden even in the hospice-calling and the funeral-planning. The psalms tell us that the death of each of those who die in faith is “precious in the sight of the Lord” (Psa. 116:15) and that he “is near to the brokenhearted” (Psa. 34:18). I found this to be palpably true. 

God cares for the dying and the grieving, and he wants his people to do this well, too. After trying to ignore and outrun death for years, I was surprised to see that Scripture did neither of these things. God’s Word sat with me in the reality and weight of death, while patiently offering surprising hope in the face of it. It did not rush toward a tidy conclusion about my loved one being in “a better place,” nor did it stew in some dark sadness to which the world tells me I am entitled while grieving. 

That’s because — unlike the counterfeits that offer us temporary reprieve — the hope we have in Christ in the face of death is not one that ignores or waters down its depths. It does not need to. No one acted like Goliath was not that big or menacing in telling the story of David defeating him. And no one needs to pretend the enemy of death that our Savior ultimately conquers is so small a foe. 

To speed past either the anguish that accompanies death or the hope that is dawning on the horizon undermines the very gospel story we claim to believe. And it will not ring true to the realities in which we live.

We do not need to run from discussions of death or to hide what the Bible has to say about it. Rather, a more robust theology of death prepares us to walk well through life in a fallen world — and all the loss it entails. It gives us a category for so much of what we see and grieve in the world, from the natural disasters popping up on our newsfeeds to the wrinkles appearing on our own faces. 

Considering death in light of its inevitability is not masochism; it is wisdom. It teaches us to number our own days, to labor — not in vain — but with eternity in view. Just like it helps to develop a theology of suffering — at least a hazy idea of how God might still be good when all is going wrong — before we dive headlong into it, it serves us to foster a theology of death before we are desperate for one.

So many around us are grieving specific and general losses. For too long, many churches have failed to give us a language and context for such grief and loss, even though the Bible provides each of these in spades. Considering with our churches and in personal study how the Bible views and addresses death gives us courage to enter into the broken places with others. It also prevents us from lobbing clichés at the grief-stricken that don’t align with Scripture and, frankly, do more harm than good. 

Suffering with others

God’s people have a better story to tell in the face of death. Yet, too often, we don’t take the opportunity to tell it because we are uncomfortable with the mysteries inherent in our understanding of it. But I would argue that what the world is looking for, more than our certainty, is our willingness to co-suffer with those who are facing and grieving the reality of death. 

When we attempt to do that, however feebly, we embody to others a Savior who faced death for us and experiences it with us. To that end, here are four practical ways God’s people can begin to better walk with others through death, offering to one another a form of the hope we are desperate for in times like these.

  1. Sit in the ash heap. Trusting God in the midst of our pain and others’ means we don’t have to explain it away. We can hold the truths that he is good and that this hurts in tension. And we can take a page from Job’s friends on those first seven days and just be quiet. The ministry of quiet presence is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to someone in the midst of grief. 
  1. Return to the Word. In sharp contrast to Christian culture at times, the Bible has plenty to say about death and grief. It depicts both in ways that ring true to reality. If you’re in the thick of it or know someone who is, you can start by borrowing the language of lament found throughout the Psalms. Though we think of praise as defining the Psalms, there are more psalms of lament in the Bible than any other type, not to mention an entire book called Lamentations. Lament prayers say at least two things: “I am hurting. And you are a God who hears.”
  1. Remember the dead. The Bible also points us to a rhythm of remembrance that has sustained God’s people across history. It can do the same now as we turn to face death alongside those who can no longer ignore it. Consider regular opportunities to remember the dead and your own mortality, such as Ash Wednesday or even communion. Did someone at your church lose a friend or family member a year ago or five years ago? Rather than wondering “How are you?” try asking, “What was she like?” It’s a story they just might be longing to tell. 
  1. Revive our Hope. Walking through death with others is a gracious reminder that we, too, will one day walk through these waters. Contemplating death allows us to consider Jesus’ words anew: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Consider as we walk through this season of Lent leading up to Easter that the hope is somehow heightened by being willing to face what is hard. It is because we are a people who die that it is good news to sing, “My Redeemer lives.” 

When we grow a greater theology of death, we are also more equipped to offer to the world the kernels of hope it contains. I recently read a New York Magazine article in which an atheist confessed that pandemic losses made her wonder if she should try church again. 

“Mostly I wanted a way to mourn,” Sarah Jones writes, “not just my own loss but the galloping mass death enveloping the world.” 

Jones adds that she was raised to be “a strict conservative Christian” but that she abandoned the evangelicalism that was not, in her experience, “good with mystery, or with death.” Belief in an afterlife felt “too easy.” And yet, she found herself searching for something like it when death took her grandfather and then a friend. 

“I didn’t need answers, not immediately,” she wrote, “but I wanted to know it was possible to find them if I worked hard enough to look . . . I wanted to stretch out my arms to something, even if I couldn’t tell what it was.” 

The apostle Paul thought about death enough to develop a vision for being like Christ in it (Phil. 3:10). What opportunities, I wonder, are we missing if we don’t do the same?

By / Apr 6

One of the amazing truths about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is not bound by anyone or anything. There is no person, no sin, no location, no background, and no circumstance that can hinder the reach of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. And one of the places this is most powerfully seen is inside the walls of a prison. A prison can be a place of darkness, violence, and despair. Men and women have forfeited their freedom – for a season or for life – and have to face the consequences of their choices. That’s where places like New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary come in, with a desire to serve those who are so often forgotten. Jody Dean, associate professor of Christian Education and senior regional associate dean for Extension Centers, discusses the prison ministry at NOBTS, the importance of theological education, and what the church can learn from our brothers and sisters who are a part of this program. 

Lindsay: Tell us a little bit about the prison ministry you do through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and your undergraduate college at Louisiana State Penitentiary and other prisons.

Jody Dean: Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) was known as a horrible prison for violence among the prison system throughout the nation. The warden, through our former president at the time, was able to work out a partnership for us to offer theological education inside the prison. So, through the undergraduate program, we were able to offer the associate’s and undergraduate bachelor’s degrees, which allows prisoners to earn a Christian ministry degree, and makes them able to minister inside that prison. Because of this, we have seen a direct correlation between our programs in the prison and a decrease in many aspects of prison culture, such as gang activity and violence. The radical transformation of the gospel of Jesus Christ was changing the prison culture. It began with that radical transformation, which then led to people wanting to be equipped for ministry, and even plant churches inside of the prison. Overall, it is great to see that the prison was seeing the improvements they wanted to.

From the results of that, we have seen other states want to do a similar kind of work, and some have done it with us. Our bandwidth has allowed us to reach out to a women’s prison here in Louisiana, a program in central Mississippi, a program in Georgia, and a program in Florida. In fact, another school took on one of the programs we had in Georgia. Some of our sister seminaries and Baptist colleges have also started doing this work in other parts of our nation, too. 

We are just so thankful to see the growth of prison programs as people have received the gospel and want to minister as field ministers and plant churches. It’s been great to see what God has done over several decades of being able to do this work.

LN: What is a field minister? 

JD: A field minister is someone who is able to do what I am not able to do. That is, they are able to have an ongoing relationship with somebody else within the prison. They are able to teach and preach the Bible, and to be alongside their neighbors in their community. Essentially, they’re able to do everything that I’m able to do in the local church. For the most part, they’re able to offer pastoral care, discipleship, and even accountability. While there may be limitations in some settings of what the field ministers are able to do, they are the front-line ministers in the prison community, alongside chaplains.

LN: How does Scripture inform NOBTS’s ministry to prisoners? And with that foundation, what keeps you persevering when the road gets tough? 

JD: The Great Commission has always been a driving force of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It was planted by Southern Baptists in New Orleans to equip missionaries for the gospel and to go into the hard-to-reach places. Our president, Dr. Jamie Dew, says “prepare here, serve anywhere,” and that applies to a prison context. It’s not necessarily the serve anywhere context you think you might land at, but it does allow us to prepare servants to walk with Christ, proclaim his truth, and fulfill his mission. 

We have the Great Commission from Matthew on our seal, and when you see that seal on your diploma, you know that you’re part of that Great Commission to go teach people about Jesus and share the gospel. We have pictures of people being baptized inside prison and have seen evidence of the gospel just transforming people’s lives. Scripture is the foundation to everything that we do, and Jesus’ ministry showed us how to be the hands and feet of Jesus to all people, wherever they may be. We have tried to be that as well in theological education, to equip people, and call them to ministry wherever they may be.

LN: When you are engaged in this ministry, what does that look like? 

Jd: It is primarily people going inside and teaching in person, especially with the limited internet access that the inmates have with people on the outside of the prison walls. Some of those are in a workshop. Most of those are weekly and ongoing, like a normal semester environment with weekly instruction. Sometimes it’s our trustee-elected faculty and sometimes it’s adjuncts and ministers that live in proximity to be able to drive in. But we have the same qualifications to teach as is needed for an accredited degree. 

We have a great group of people that help make the program happen in those contexts to teach the classes, pour into the students, grade their work, and mentor them in their classes. We teach English and statistics, as well as church planting, counseling, and other courses on discipleship.

LN: How have you seen the prison ministry help to change the prison culture through redemption and restoration?

JD: In Angloa, we saw all the metrics reduce, as far as violence, gang activity, and all the other things that we wanted to see improve inside of prison. The radical transformation of the gospel, as we know, impacts all of our lives, whether we’re incarcerated or not. People accept Christ. We’ve also seen these guys that want to be equipped to minister inside the prison since you can’t leave to go to church. We started seeing churches planted inside the prison and the gospel move throughout the prison. We saw all the men just continuing to minister and reach out. They allowed them to be field ministers as graduates of the program inside Angola, and then they will also sometimes be transferred to other prisons to be able to do ministry too.

This ministry causes them to be mobilized — to be sent out as a field minister, sometimes into an unknown location or into an unknown section of the prison. This is like moving to a whole new community. With that comes all the ministry challenges: building relationships and living out your faith, even when it’s not convenient. The radical transformation of people now walking with Christ and wanting to proclaim his truth to other people has been amazing to see throughout the prison systems that offer theological training throughout the nation.

LN: What is the role of education in helping these prisoners feel a sense of dignity? 

JD: It’s so important for them to be reminded that Jesus knows exactly where they are and still cares for them. I truly believe in Jeremiah 29:11, as far as having a plan for our lives, but I think the students at Angola and these other locations could help us really understand Jeremiah 29:13 which says, “You will seek me and know me when you seek me with all of your heart.” 

What amazes me is when I’m able to go and be there for a milestone or a graduation celebration. You get to be there with their family and celebrate with them and you’re reminded that these men and women have sought the Lord through circumstances that radically changed their lives. And though their life was radically changed, to put them in the context that they’re in, the Lord has done something wonderful in that and they have found a relationship with him and a call to ministry. They’re reaching hundreds for Christ, and the churches are growing as the local congregations are planted and they’re ministering to people each and every day. 

They still have struggles, of course, like all of us that have accepted Christ, but they have been able to find peace on the journey and are now able to help other people. That has been so encouraging to see with this program — it has helped drive them to find purpose in ministering to one another. I really think that’s why Angola saw many metrics change, that caused it to go from a violent location to be considerably less violent.

Lindsay: What are some misconceptions about ministering in prisons?

Jody: I think sometimes a misconception is how people measure effectiveness, because it’s not something we see daily. Sometimes I have heard people ask, “How effective is it?” because not everybody sees all the field ministers who have gone out over the years, all the work that has been accomplished with the churches planted, and all the people reached. But it’s an effective work that is making a kingdom impact — it’s changing the face of eternity by way of reaching people and making disciples. 

Another misconception is that theological education is not needed in prison. There’s a lot of trade education in prisons, but theological education is needed just as much as every other form of education in a community is needed. They need ministers that can reach and make disciples. So, there is a need for churches and there is a need for equipping students for all areas of ministry as they serve in their context.

LN: What advice would you give to churches and believers who want to get involved with or start a prison ministry?

JD: It’s going to take time, and that’s the most expensive resource. It takes talents, so you’ve got to have the diversity of giftedness to pull it off. But really, it’s also going to take money. It’s expensive, and it can’t just be a quick ministry. It’s going to have to be ongoing and continual. You want to make sure that you, as a church, are ready to come alongside prisons, really engage and support those you serve, and that it’s an ongoing part of your funding to be able to provide needs. You may discover that prisoners need gloves for cold weather, or notebooks, or textbooks, or even Bibles. There are a variety of needs you will discover, and you will want to be able to provide these resources. And that’s going to come at a cost. 

So, I would tell churches to weigh the time, to weigh the giftedness, and to weigh the financial components, because it will tug at your heart. There will also be some days that you’re tired and weary, but it is a fulfilling work that makes a great kingdom impact.

LN: How does being a Southern Baptist entity help further this ministry? 

JD: I think it is so important that we’re able to provide the education preparation for ministry in churches. The churches are able to partner and come alongside us by encouraging, by providing resources, by providing love, and by providing compassion. All the prison programs have local churches that also support them. I’ve seen local churches provide a meal at a graduation, care packages as a semester starts, and money to help the program exist. I’ve even seen state conventions and local associations come alongside and buy textbooks, aid in planting the churches, and provide all kinds of needs as discovered. 

It is a collective work of Southern Baptists. As we all collaborate on this, along with the state conventions and NAMB, it is important because we are able to have chaplains, theological education, churches being planted, and churches partnering with churches on the inside. This work is a ministry of encouragement to the programs and the people that are a part of these programs.

LN: What can we learn from these men and women who are in physical chains but are seeing the Lord set them free? 

A lesson I have learned from these prisoners is their unwavering commitment, no matter where they’re located and no matter what environment they find themselves in. They have an unwavering commitment to the Lord. That is the lesson: for each of us to strive to live for him each day. And the students continue to teach me that.

LN: Are there any ways that we, as churches, can be praying for this ministry?

JD: Continue to pray for the students. Pray for the teachers, faculty, staff, and administrators. Pray that the Lord continues to provide the finances needed and that the Lord continues to sustain us in all the ways in which we do this.

By / Mar 15

For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays. 

Some dangers to watch out for

While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.

Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction. 

Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.

A better way

By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case. 

However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other. 

Some practical considerations

So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:

Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs. 

Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.

Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things. 

If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.

The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.

Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life

In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.

I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.

By / Mar 2

Any discussion on the church would be severely lacking without a close look at the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Without him, the church would never have been founded. Godly leaders would never have been called, believers added, gifts distributed, service rendered, or growth realized. 

The Holy Spirit is mentioned some fifty-six times in the book of Acts as filling, helping, guiding, calling, aiding, growing, sanctifying, maturing, organizing, assisting, regenerating, teaching, testifying to, interceding for, reminding, grieving over, and loving believers, who make up the church. Without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, there is no church. But with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the church shines forth beautifully as he makes her his glorious dwelling. 

Our Helper 

To comfort the hearts of his despondent disciples, who have just learned that Jesus will soon be leaving them, he promises them a “Helper” (John 14:16). Jesus unveils the identity and ministry of this divine Helper in subsequent verses: 

The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26) 

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26) 

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7) 

The Greek word used here in reference to the Holy Spirit is paraklētos, which means “one called to another’s side, specifically to help and aid.” It can also denote an intercessor, an assistant, or someone who pleads another’s cause before a judge. The word itself reveals the all-encompassing role of the Spirit within the body of Christ. He is our Helper, Intercessor, Assistant, Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, and Sustainer. 

What love Jesus has for the church! He doesn’t leave her to fend for herself with her own devices, inventions, creativity, or wit. Surprisingly, he says, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). If we listen closely, we can almost hear the disciples bemoan Jesus’s words. “What could possibly be good about you leaving us, Jesus?” Peter is so steadfast in his resolve that Jesus will not be leaving that he takes Jesus aside from the others and rebukes him (Matt. 16:21–23). 

Yes, the disciples have a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task of walking in Jesus’s footsteps and continuing his ministry on earth. The proclamation of the gospel to the nations, the organization of the church, discipling believers, caring for orphans and widows, and all the rest — “You can’t leave us, Jesus! How are we to accomplish all of this?” In his love and comforting care of his disciples, he essentially says, “My Father will give you a Helper.” 

The Holy Spirit is sufficiently enough to equip and empower you to discharge every aspect of the turning-the-world-upside-down ministry to which Jesus has called his church. 

The exaltation of Christ to the right hand of the Father at his ascending enthronement and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit can clearly be seen as advantageous after a quick survey of a few of the numerous ministries he performs within the church: 

  • He counsels (Isa. 11:2).
  • He imparts wisdom (Isa. 11:2).
  • He adopts (Rom. 8:15).
  • He calls to ministry (Acts 13:2–4). 
  • He empowers (Acts 1:8).
  • He illuminates (1 Cor. 2:10–13).
  • He produces fruit (Gal. 5:22–23).
  • He seals (2 Cor. 1:22).
  • He strengthens (John 14:26).
  • He helps (John 14:16)
  • He intercedes (Rom. 8:26).
  • He provides truth (John 14:17, 26). 
  • He teaches (Luke 12:12).
  • He testifies (John 15:26).
  • He guides (Acts 16:16–17).
  • He grieves (Eph. 4:30). 
  • He convicts (2 Thess. 2:6–7). 
  • He loves (Rom. 5:5; 15:30). 

Our Beautifier 

One characteristic we don’t often consider, and perhaps have never considered, as a ministry of the Holy Spirit is that of a beautifier. Each of the above ministries is for the purpose of beautifying the church in order to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Like a bride waking up on her wedding day and spending hours perfecting her beauty, every aspect of the Spirit’s ministry to, in, and through the church is to make her holier and consequently more beautiful. 

Here we benefit again from the wisdom and insight of Jonathan Edwards, who believed sanctification — the inward transformation of our affections to make us more like Jesus — is beautification. That is, being made holy is being made beautiful. In his sermon “God’s Excellencies,” Edwards preached: 

Holiness is the very beauty and loveliness of Jehovah himself. ’Tis the excellency of his excellencies, the beauty of his beauties, the perfection of his infinite perfections, and the glory of his attributes. What an honor, then, must it be to a creature who is infinitely below God, and less than he, to be beautified and adorned with this beauty, with that beauty which is the highest beauty of God himself, even holiness. 

This is the incomparable work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and hearts of every redeemed believer, to make us beautiful by making us like Christ. Edwards says we should be amazed that God would make any of his creatures holy, even the unfallen angels, but how much more glorious is it for God to “sanctify sinners—loathsome and abominable creatures—and make them like to himself.” 

This beautification process begins as we are brought into an intimate relationship with the one who is supremely beautiful and lovely. In John 16:14, Jesus emphasizes that the ministry of the Spirit is not to draw attention to himself but to glorify Christ, “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” In all his conforming and transforming work in the life of individual believers and the life of the church, the Holy Spirit perpetually points to Jesus. 

Glancing at Jesus doesn’t make sinners beautiful. Being a mere spectator of a local church doesn’t make sinners beautiful. Living on the edge of gospel-centered ministry doesn’t make sinners beautiful. The beauty for which we are saved is accomplished only through an intense, heartfelt stare at Jesus. We all know what it’s like to receive a glaring stare from a parent when we’ve disobeyed. Words aren’t necessary for a reprimand; the stare alone communicates the required level of conformity. Edwards says we need such a sight of the divine beauty of Christ that our hearts and wills bow before his loveliness. Naturally, as long as our redeemed souls are encased in sinful flesh, we oppose the Spirit’s work of beautifying holiness. But “one glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God, and supreme amiableness of Jesus Christ, shining into the heart, overcomes and abolishes this opposition, and inclines the soul to Christ.” When the Spirit causes the beauty of Christ to dawn in our hearts, all opposition to holiness flees, our eyes firmly rivet to his flawless loveliness, and we are made beautiful. 

A chief work of the Spirit is to bring beauty out of chaos. In creation, the Spirit brought harmony out of formlessness and void (Gen. 1:2). In redemption, the Spirit brings life out of death and sin (John 3:5–6, 8). In sanctification, the Spirit brings beauty out of fallen flesh and wayward hearts (Rom. 8:9–11). The church becomes an instrument of Christ’s beaming radiance in the world through the individual expressions of the work of grace by the Spirit in the lives of believers. 

Content taken from The Loveliest Place by Dustin Benge, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

By / Feb 16

When building a children’s ministry at a church, there is so much to consider: Which curriculum should we use? How many volunteers do we need? How do we keep parents in the loop? And that’s before we run into stalled check-in computers, missing activity sheets, and floors that need to be vacuumed. In his newest book, Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission, Jared Kennedy shares a four-fold approach for gospel-centered, missional children’s ministry. In the book, he helps leaders — who can easily get distracted with all tasks of children’s ministry — to keep their focus on the gospel. Below, Kennedy answers questions that will help you form a faithful ministry to children.

What are the four big ways that the gospel shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and how do these gospel goals translate into a strategy for children’s discipleship? 

In children’s ministry, we’re sometimes tempted to let the trappings of serving with excellence keep us from seeing where the real glory is. I’ve experienced this temptation practically. I’ve let the missing activity sheet and empty Goldfish box stress me out. While it’s not a bad thing to want to welcome families to our church with open arms, there are times when my worry over doing ministry well has revealed a misplaced faith. The level of anxiety I feel reveals that I’m trusting my hard work or attractional programming instead of trusting in Christ. 

Paul stands in stark contrast to the way we tend to operate. In his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul gives us his vision for courageous, gospel-centered ministry — the kind of ministry that finds strength even in the midst of weakness. I believe there are at least four ways the simple gospel message shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and we can see each of them present in Paul’s description of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 1:31–2:5. 

First, the gospel seasons our hospitality with humility; we don’t come to children with lofty speech but with humble and full hearts, boasting only in the Lord. 

Second, the gospel centers our teaching on Jesus Christ and him crucified. All else pales in comparison to the central place of this message. 

Third, the gospel forms our discipleship; we’re intentional about training children, and we have confidence that the Spirit’s goal is to grow kids in conformity with Christ’s story. 

Finally, the gospel fuels our mission so that the next generation’s faith does not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Some people today question whether or not having an age-graded children’s ministry is even needed. Why do you think it’s still important? 

It’s true. Some church leaders have decided that children’s ministry programming is no longer necessary. Their desire is to empower parents as disciple-makers and also to help kids build relationships with people of all ages in the church. These are good and biblical desires, but there are downsides to eliminating children’s ministry from the church calendar. Kids trained from an early age might pull off sitting through a long sermon without rolling matchbox cars down the wooden pews, but will unchurched visitors and new believers be as successful?

Think about it. Why should we have young children sit all the way through a sermon they don’t understand? As we pursue ways to help children experience intergenerational church life, we also need ministry approaches that remember kids from unbelieving homes and that capitalize on the pedagogical advantage of age-directed lessons. Even within the Bible, there seem to be some parts — Song of Songs, for example — that should be taught publicly (2 Tim. 3:16–17) but seem to be reserved for adults and older teens, not for younger children (Song 8:4). Other parts of the Bible, such as Proverbs, are geared toward youth (Prov. 1:8; cf. Ps. 119:9–16)! 

We have to keep our priorities in order. The church’s goal in discipling the next generation is not to train kids so they can sit quietly through church services. Our goal is for them to hear about the Savior and, by God’s grace, be changed by him. 

In the book, you say that children’s ministry is like PBS Kids®. What do you mean?

Once I was addressing a seminary class about how to create kid-friendly and engaging children’s ministry games. One of the students objected, “That sounds like something you’d see on the children’s cable channel, Nickelodeon. Is this just keeping kids entertained?” It was a good question. After all, I think the game in question did involve slime. 

Sometimes with kids’ activities there is an entertainment factor, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect on that student’s question, I’d say (and I did say in the book!) that children’s ministry activities aren’t like Nickelodeon; they’re more like PBS Kids. There’s a goal in mind with a children’s lesson that is larger than entertainment alone — one that is bigger than selling a product or a character. Like the interactive exhibits at a children’s museum or the skits on Sesame Street, children’s ministry is an experience, but it’s an experience with an educational and relational aim. Dave Ainsworth, one of the pastors at Citizens Church in San Francisco, puts it this way: “Children’s ministry done well leads kids to learn about Jesus through hands-on, real-life, engaging discovery.” 

What does the biblical storyline teach us about kids? How should we view our children’s ministry in light of the big story of redemptive history?

We can summarize the gospel story as a fourfold movement: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And each part teaches us about children’s ministry.

First, we discover that God created children for himself. Kids are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Their lives are imbued with the glory of a universe that reflects God’s beauty; they’ve 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 (Gen. 1:26–27). Children’s ministries, as a result, should emphasize safety and child protection. We protect kids because they have dignity; they’re worth it. Moreover, as image-bearers, children are also made for worship. From childhood, every human is fashioned for giving praise, so we engage kids in singing and hand motions. We teach them from their earliest days that they are made to worship their Creator.

Second, our children are fallen and sinful. They inhabit a world marred by sin, abuse, suffering, and death; they feel its pain. You’ve probably seen that children’s program where the wooly mammoth, vampire, monsters, aliens, and an overgrown canary have all invaded a side street in Manhattan. In his brilliance, Jim Henson took some of our greatest fears and made them cute and educational. The child-friendly terrors that live together on Sesame Street should remind us of the hidden reality of childhood. 

Children are glorious and beautiful gifts from God and yet within each child — behind the cuteness — there’s a fallen heart that’s twisted from the moment of conception. Even kids exchange delight in God’s glory for delight in the pleasures of the moment (Rom. 1:21; 3:23). There is a battle for affections going on in kids’ hearts, and our classroom management strategies must be aware of this reality. Yes, children need comfort, care, and a healing touch. But they also need honest correction, because it’s only when kids see the terror of their sin that they’ll see their need for redemption.

Third, redemption comes for children through Jesus. Remember, Jesus himself said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matt. 19:14 NLT). Jesus’s rebuke of his friends who would’ve kept kids at a distance should inspire us to include children in the life of our church communities. And his welcome of children should encourage us to call even the youngest children to faith. 

Finally, in light of the coming consummation, our children are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. When we get to glory, the most enduring relational reality will be our relationship to the Savior (Matt. 22:30). 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. Rob Plummer describes it this way: “If our children stand beside us in eternity, it will not be as our children but as our blood-redeemed brothers and sisters (Rev. 7:9–12).” But if our children are going to join us as brothers and sisters in glory, they must hear the gospel now. 

Children need us to help them to look outside of themselves to the salvation Jesus offers. When we teach Christ-centered lessons and practice child evangelism, we’re helping each child see that Christ is his or her only hope.

By / Jan 12

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, says, “A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.” Collins’ quote isn’t about church planting. It’s about the fundamentally different world of corporate affairs. But since my wife and I, along with a core team of friends, started the church planting process in the summer of 2021, I’ve not been able to escape that phrase, the right people.

In an incisive article at Mere Orthodoxy last June, Michael Graham wrote of the “six way fracturing” of evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals are, he said, self-sorting “into the type of church that best fits their animating and core concerns.” Though there are legitimate reasons for Christians to find another fellowship of believers, lately, people are too easily leaving their churches, whether it’s over COVID, politics, race, or any number of topics caught up in the culture wars. What’s more, these heightened cultural pressures are coming at a time when Westerners are more mobile than ever before, more churches are streaming services online, and society’s religious offerings are more numerous and diverse. All of this means that what we’re experiencing is likely the largest, most influential self-sorting of its kind in church history.

There are perennial temptations with church planting, and in a sense, none of the temptations in this season are unique. However, the cultural and ecclesial pressures of the last few years have exacerbated some of them. Church planters always feel the need to get more people on board. Will we have a “critical mass” on our launch Sunday? Will we have enough people to feel comfortable inviting our neighbors and friends? How many people need to show up in the first months for this to be sustainable? 

In recent months of our church planting efforts, we have had multiple dinners and coffees with friends and acquaintances and people we’ve only just met. In those meetings, we’ve not only felt that pressure, but we’ve also seen the fruit of the evangelical big sort. Many of our conversations have turned from us sharing about the mission and vision of our church to hearing about the frustration and disillusionment people have with the churches they’ve attended, the reasons they might be open to a change, and the things they would really like to see in our church. As I’ve reflected on these conversations, three underlying temptations have become clear.

The temptation to chase people

The first temptation is to chase people. As we’ve prayed, brainstormed, and been connected with folks we think might be a good fit, we’ve found a few categories of people: (1) people who are immediately interested and start coming to core team meetings; (2) people who, for whatever reason, are not interested and are clear about that up front; (3) people who really aren’t sure, for countless reasons. Church planting isn’t for everyone, and I suspect most people haven’t really thought about it before. Naturally, they need some time to consider whether it’s for them.

But as the months go by, growth is slow, and the decision-making process drags on for some, there is a temptation to chase them. This perhaps comes most clearly in the even more specific temptation to assuage their concerns and assure them that those concerns won’t become issues. Worried about your three kids losing the stability of their established Sunday school rhythms? Don’t worry, we’ll get there soon. Plus, I’ve heard parents recount how great it was to have their kids at a church plant! Worried about whether it makes sense for you to join a church in a community different from the one where you live? Hey, plenty of people will drive across town, and I think it’ll be a really smooth transition for you! 

These sorts of overpromises in the effort to chase people can quickly turn into under-deliveries. Yes, you’ll get a few extra core team members, but in a year, they may be frustrated, hurt, and walking out the door. I’ve found it’s better to be completely forthright and have people opt out on the front end than to shade the truth, hurt your friends, and see them eventually leave anyway.

The temptation to capitalize on church frustration

This temptation is uniquely relevant after the last few years because church frustration is so high. As I mentioned above, several conversations have revealed that people are less interested in hearing about our vision for our church, and more interested in sharing their vision for a church. They want to know what we think about certain cultural issues; how I, as a pastor, would have responded to certain major events’ and how we plan to move forward. And yes, how we respond to these things as Christians matters, though we won’t all agree. So, while I don’t mind answering specific questions that people ask, I keep trying to pull those conversations back to the mission and vision of the church. We want to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. And we want to be a Christ-centered church for our area.

Perhaps the easiest way to grow a core team in 2022 would be to assure people that you agree with all their cultural opinions and preferences. But, as my friend and fellow Nashville pastor told me: those aren’t the kind of people to build a church with. They likely won’t make it through the crucible of church planting. And if they find something to disagree with at every church they attend, they’ll eventually find something to disagree with at your church too.

The temptation to oversimplify

Related to both of the first two temptations is the temptation to oversimplify. There is so much complexity to the issues that have caused evangelical churches consternation over the past few years. There is a temptation to oversimplify in a way that will get us “amens” from those who are already super convinced on one side of the cultural divide, but will probably alienate everyone else. This usually comes through unhelpful, loud, and confident proclamations, like that the greatest threat to the gospel is “wokeness,” or that evangelicalism is just a purveyor of white supremacy and needs to be dismantled. It comes in nuance-less assertions, such as churches who don’t require masks have blood on their hands, or that every Christian should’ve voted for one presidential candidate or the other. 

Healthy churches today and in the future must be able to operate with a measure of nuance, and disciple people—many of whom are wrestling and doubting—through complexity. Oversimplification won’t allow for that. Nuance might not give people the quick or satisfying answers they want, but it will be beneficial to the health of your church in the long run. 

For example, after an early conversation with the elders at our sending church, I used a phrase when I presented my vision for a church that caused some of the elders concern. A couple of them followed up with me—for which I was very grateful, by the way. They could’ve assumed; instead, they asked. But in those conversations, there was a temptation to oversimplify my wording and explain away any concern they might have. My pastor wisely reminded me to be as honest, clear, and thorough as I could be. My calling is to do what I believe God has called me to, not to please men (Acts 5:29). In the end, it was clear we weren’t 100% on the same page on that particular issue, but we also weren’t so far apart that they had trepidation about supporting us. Similar stories could be shared about conversations with potential core team members. 

Thankfully, the encouragement and help of wise mentors and friends has allowed me to largely steer clear of caving to these temptations so far. At the root of them all is the temptation to ignore Collins’ advice. At a spiritual level, though, it is a greater temptation: the temptation to not trust God.

Church planter, do you believe God has called you to the work of planting? Are you praying for him to send workers alongside you into the harvest? Trust that he knows thoroughly and intimately the harvest into which he is sending you, and trust that he is going to send you the right people, and the right number of people, to accomplish his purposes for you and your church. It will look different than you expected, and it will probably look different than you hoped. But God will send you the right people for the good of his church. You can labor and rest in that truth.

By / Jan 11

Is it necessary for a church to interact with members online during the week? Does it matter? Is it even the right thing to do? Many people are asking questions like these regarding church and online engagement. The truth is that if you don’t show up in people’s feeds on social media, the algorithm has plenty of other things to put there for them. Our news feeds and timelines are discipling us. And we are formed into the image of the content we most consume.

I want to encourage you to recognize that your congregation is on social platforms whether you like it or not. And, with the way we are all conditioned in a digital age, the algorithm is better at getting and keeping their attention than a 35-minute sermon. This is essential to understand because our attention is a pivotal piece in our spiritual formation. John Mark Comer said it this way, “What you give your attention to is the person you become” (The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, 54). Can you, as a pastor or church leader, use these platforms to turn people’s attention to Christ? And in doing so, can you foster his work in and through them? I believe you can. 

However, we have to get practical about how to do this, which can be uncomfortable. No one likes talking about the nitty-gritty of how to do this type of stuff because it feels small, ridiculous, or like marketing. You might read some of the ideas I share and think to yourself, “Really? That feels very basic.” But the reality is that engaging your congregation online means using basic social media marketing principles, not to build the church’s “brand,” but to shepherd your congregations during the 167 hours of the week that they aren’t in your building. 

It’s one thing to debate if church can be virtual or not. It’s another thing to use these platforms as part of your ministry the way they were designed to be used. The weekly, physical gathering will always be the primary ministry of the church. We should not forsake it (Heb. 10:25). As embodied creatures who are part of the body of Christ, our physical presence is of the utmost importance. Yet, we are a generation who is living out this reality in the digital age. And, it’s important for the church to view virtual space as the grounds for legitimate ministry.

I want to suggest going a few steps beyond just live-streaming, which many have become accustomed to during the pandemic. You may be cautious about adopting new platforms, but your congregation isn’t. They are already on those platforms, being shaped and formed by the content they see that’s not even on your radar. In light of this, here are seven practical ideas you can try in the new year.

Practical ways to engage church members online

1. Sermon point carousels

Take the sermon points from the week and use Canva to turn them into an Instagram carousel. A carousel is where you use the 10 photo slots available to you on Instagram to create what is essentially a slide deck. One example of this is from The Bridge Church in Tennessee.

This is a great role for a volunteer and might only take about 30 minutes. Send the volunteer the sermon notes and audio. They can take the three to five big points and turn them into carousels. Instagram’s algorithm loves carousels, and it will help people remember what was preached that week.

2. Live Facebook/Instagram Q&A

Do a Facebook or Instagram Live during lunch with a Q&A on anything people want to talk about. To do this on Facebook, open up the Facebook app, go to your church’s Facebook page, scroll down below the “Create a post” button and click “Live.” Then click “Start Live Video.”

On Instagram, simply swipe right to access the camera, select “Live” at the bottom of the screen, and click the button in the middle of the bottom of the screen. 

Make sure to tell people you are going to do it before you go live so they can think about a question. You can do this on Instagram Stories, too. Use the question sticker to accept people’s questions and then respond to them by pressing the question in your notifications and then recording a video in the app responding to it.

It should only take about 30 seconds of your time to ask for questions. Doing this even once a month will show that you care about what is on your congregation’s hearts and minds and that you are willing to connect with them where they are.

3. Video of cut sermon content

Pastor, you can take one of the points from your most recent sermon that had to get cut and record a video on your iPhone of you talking about it. Make it anywhere from one to three minutes, and post it to social media. If you need help, you can enlist the help of someone on staff who is more knowledgeable about technology. 

Maybe it’s that Greek word you found interesting but didn’t think was good to keep in your sermon. Or, it might be an illustration that didn’t quite work but is still powerful. Perhaps, it’s a fourth point you wanted to make but were out of time. Whatever it is, it may not have fit on Sunday, but it probably fits on social. And don’t forget to spend some time replying to the comments after you post. It shows that you want to interact with and shepherd your people, not just preach and leave.

4. Ask questions on Instagram Stories

On Instagram Stories, use the question sticker to ask something like, “What’s the hardest thing for you to believe this week?” Then, share the answers (which are anonymous). Maybe you can even go first. Resist trying to provide answers; it will help create a culture of honesty and vulnerability in the church. In a time when so many people feel hesitant to express doubt, this is a chance for them to be honest about their struggles without feeling judged or condemned.

Your church will even receive some pastoral insight on how to better shepherd people from the results. Are you seeing common themes? Your pastor can include an aside into an upcoming sermon or make a short video to post later in the week. Pastors might be surprised at what they will learn about their congregation just by asking a simple question on Instagram.

5. Sermon resources email

Send an email to the church with the sermon sources for the week. Pastor, it will give people a look into what’s influencing your  and an opportunity to dig deeper. Make sure to keep the email brief so that people are more likely to read all of it. Be sure to include links to the resources you used so that it’s easier for your members to access them. Your congregation will benefit greatly from a simple email that someone on staff can help you shape. 

6. Church-wide Discord server or Facebook group.

Start a church-wide Discord Server or Facebook group where there can be an ongoing conversation between the congregation, staff, pastors, etc., and engage with this daily. You can create sub-channels for different topics in Discord. Many people feel disconnected from their church, and this is a way to stay in touch, foster conversation, and provides a window into how your congregation is doing so your staff can better shepherd them. All you need to do is devote just a few minutes every day to observing the conversations and joining in.

To create a Discord server, download the Discord app in the App store, create an account, and on the left-hand side bar, click the “+” button. Follow the process to create a server for your church.

For a Facebook group, open the Facebook app, click the Groups icon in the bottom of the screen, followed by clicking the “+” icon in the top right of the screen. Click “Create a group,” and follow the process to set up a group for your church.

7. Repurpose sermons into a blog/newsletter

A volunteer who is great at writing or editing can use Descript to transcribe the sermon and remove filler words. Cut it down to about 1,000–1,500 words, and put it on Substack — a service that allows you to write a newsletter that people subscribe to with their email (this creates an email list) and also publish it on a unique URL as a blog. 

Having an email list is one of the only assets you can own on the web (for now). All other services such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Discord, and others are rented space. An email list is an asset you own that gives you direct access to people’s inboxes. People can unsubscribe, but you aren’t dependent on a private platform. It’s also the most direct way to reach people. Everyone checks their email. You’re more likely to reach your people because they will open your email if they value the content you send. There are many other creative ways you can utilize email for your congregation beyond this and sending out event announcements, but it starts with building the email list first. This is a great way to do that. 

And here’s a pro-tip: Publish the newsletter on a one- to two-month delay from the date you preached it. That way it’s not immediately redundant and can be an easy reminder once it starts to slip from people’s minds.

Start with what you have

All of these suggestions are just a start. There are myriad things you can do on online platforms, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, especially if this prospect is overwhelming to you. These seven ideas — which will be pretty simple once you figure them out — mean you have a strategy for the whole week. If you do one of these a day, you’ve just done more to engage your congregation online than many churches. If you do two to three a week, you’ll be covered for the whole month and still be doing great at online engagement.

We now live our lives in a hybrid of physical and digital, and there’s no going back. Of course, we never want to forsake the physical — we are physical beings made in God’s image who are called to gather together in the name of Christ — but we shouldn’t forsake our people to the digital either. It’s important that we begin to see our ministry extending into the digital spaces, where people spend hours every day. If church members are giving a majority of their attention to online platforms, then let’s find creative ways to grab their attention and point them to Christ. 

By / Dec 16

In April of 2021, we found out that my 37-year-old-husband had a tumor in his small intestine that indicated the presence of a very rare cancer. The diagnosis and surgery to remove it took place this year. But he was sick for most of 2020, undergoing tests, scans, and blood work that mostly provided no answers.

As we began to visit a cancer center in our city and acclimate ourselves within this new community, I realized that I was assuming a new identity at the same time that my husband had become a cancer patient. In addition to my other roles, I was now a caregiver. As the illness progressed and he underwent surgery, I began to assist and care for my husband in unprecedented ways, along with assuming more responsibilities in our home. We have three boys, now ages 10, 7, and 3, and I found myself feeling like a single parent.

As we enter the Christmas season, I think of all the men and women who find themselves caring for someone who in years past would have been shoulder to shoulder with them, or maybe even leading, through these weeks that are supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” I think of those looking at the busy calendar, the Christmas menu, or the bank account, wondering how they will manage it all. I think of those with young children who are blissfully content with the presents under the tree and the older kids who are searching their parents’ eyes for comfort and peace. If that’s you, I want to share a word of encouragement from the scriptures. 

Finding hope in the minor prophets 

In the spring of 2021, an amazing and diverse group of women studied the minor prophets together at my church. It was a wonderful anchor for me in this season, keeping me in the scriptures, as well as giving me a group of women who encouraged and prayed for me. To the surprise of some of the attendees who were less than thrilled about looking at these books with strange names and even stranger language, we loved our study of the minor prophets. 

My greatest encouragement through my husband’s diagnosis and surgery was found in an unlikely place: the book of Nahum. I’m not sharing this with you as a biblical scholar, but as someone who went to the Word for manna on the hardest days of my life. If you are a caregiver at Christmas, I want to share the hope I found in this little book of the Bible.

Nahum 1:15 states: “Look to the mountains — the feet of the herald, who proclaims peace. Celebrate your festivals, Judah; fulfill your vows. For the wicked one will never again march through you; he will be entirely wiped out.” There are five things I clung to in this passage, and I pray you will, too. 

1. “Look to the mountains”: Suffering reminds us of our humanity. In seasons of immense difficulty, the challenges around you can feel insurmountable. More than that, if you look only to yourself, you will quickly run into your very human limitations. A diagnosis doesn’t usually come with clear answers for the questions of “how” or “why,” and that shatters the false ideas of strength and being untouchable that tend to creep up in lighter seasons.  

You must, “set your eyes on things above,” as Colossians 3:2 says, and remember, as Isaiah 55 proclaims, “For as heaven is higher than earth, so [God’s] ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts.” As we “look up,” we can trust in his good purposes, even when they don’t make sense in our present circumstances.

2. “The feet of the herald, who proclaims peace”: We must look to the one who comes “to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners” (Isa. 61 and Luke 4). Ephesians 2 reminds us that Jesus “is our peace.” Jesus proclaims peace to you! The image of him found in Nahum, coming down from the high places — even the mention of his human feet — reminds me of how he left heaven to come to earth as a baby. He did not leave us alone in our suffering. He embodied his love and came into our reality for the purpose of making peace with God. The only way to have peace in your heart when fear threatens to steal the joy from this Christmas season is to remember Christ.

3. “Celebrate your festivals, Judah”: This obscure verse of Scripture became my meditation and gave me purpose for the way I was leading my family through this season. Because of Jesus, we still had reason to celebrate — Easter, the end of the school year, birthdays, the Fourth of July, and now, Christmas. I was determined that cancer would not cast its long shadow over every area of my children’s lives. A dear friend always tells me to “choose joy,” and we fought for every ounce.

4. “Fulfill your vows”: Nahum was obviously not reminding the Israelites of their marriage vows, but I could not read those words without remembering my own pledge to care for my husband, “in sickness and in health.” Like so many elements of our faith, the true tests come in private and in suffering. It was ironic to consider how the words I said in my very expensive dress and in our beautifully orchestrated wedding ceremony were truly coming to life in a tiny hospital room, when neither of us had slept or showered, and no one was watching. 

5. “For the wicked one will never again march through you; he will be entirely wiped out”: I know cancer is the result of our broken and wicked world. It is not as God intended. I also know that one day sickness and suffering will be done away with. I also know that my husband will be perfectly healed eventually, and it was and is my prayer that his surgery “entirely wiped out” the cancer from his body. I know that God is able to do so, by whatever means he choses, and we give him glory. 

In this Advent season, we remember how God fulfilled his promises and gave us the Messiah as a baby 2,000 years ago. Emmanuel, God with us, has come. You are not alone. No matter what you are facing and the burdens you are carrying, our righteous King will sustain you. And he will prove faithful once again when he returns: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21).