Our children learn a whole lot about life during the Christmas season. They learn how to indulge themselves. They learn how to be demanding and self-centered. They learn works-righteousness from Santa (Good=presents; Bad=lump of coal). They learn that getting new stuff equals happiness. They learn the secret of discontentment. They learn that our American economy is totally dependent on holiday consumer retail sales (okay, maybe only a few sharp ones…). They are learning these lessons every year thanks to their own sinful hearts, Satan, and the world.
So that means Christian parents must be aggressive, winsome, and purposeful in the education of their children during the holidays. By words and example, it is our duty as parents to train children to think rightly about God, the world, and ourselves. So here’s my list of the “Twelve Truths of Christmas” for children (you may put them to music if you like…”On the first day of Christmas, my dear Savior gave to me, a heart of…”):
- Contentment. We’ll start with possibly the hardest of all lessons: How do we fight against rampant discontentment in our children? It’s taught primarily by what parents REFUSE to do–indulge their child’s every whim throughout the year. If your children are getting whatever they want whenever they want it, then the sinful virus of discontentment will be at fever level at Christmas.
- Compassion. Not just for all the poor children who don’t get presents at Christmas. More importantly, teach your children to have true pity on all who make Christmas meaningless by removing Christ. Our children should grieve for and pray for all their friends and family members who have rejected the Christ of Christmas.
- Joy. Presents bring happiness–usually very temporary happiness for our children. Teach them that their joy can only be found in the Lord!
- Identity. Even though Christmas is a fairly universal holiday, it is one that should only be enjoyed by Christians. After all, what meaning has Jesus taking on human flesh unless you identify yourself with Christ? Your children will either identify with the world or identify with their Savior every Christmas and all through the year.
- Sin. Talking about sin on Christmas is borderline heresy! But your children really need to have their sinful hearts poked during this time of year. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show them how they are thinking more about themselves than about Jesus or others.
- Grace. Santa Claus teaches what our sinful hearts want to hear–that good people get good stuff and bad people get bad stuff. It’s not good enough to teach your children that Santa isn’t real; you must debunk the lie that we can be good and that we deserve good things. Show them Jesus, and teach them undeserved grace!
- Giving. Yes, teach your children to give to others this Christmas. And, yes, teach them how much better it is to give than receive. Yet you must teach them how God so loved the world that HE GAVE His Son…or your children will become self-righteous in their giving. We don’t want our children to think highly of their own benevolence when it is God who is the true Giver.
- Receiving. Christianity is first about receiving (on our side of things)–we receive grace, forgiveness, and salvation because of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Children love to receive–it’s adults who are often too proud to receive well. When your children receive a gift, train them to have hearts of gratitude towards all who give to them–because it is a reflection of how they receive Christ.
- Peace. The angels announced that the birth of Christ brings peace on earth. The world defines peace as lack of war, conflict, or trouble. True peace is a lack of hostility between God and man. This is only possible in Christ, and it gives rest in even the most difficult of holidays.
- Love. This one’s obvious, right? But does Christmas just naturally bring love out of our hearts? While our children may not have to be taught affection for their family and friends, they need to learn how to love God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves. This is only learned when the love of God dwells in their hearts.
- Faith. We pray that God gives our children the grace of saving faith so they can put their trust in Christ. Christmas can be a missed opportunity to talk with them about the nature of faith. It’s not about being “good for goodness sake,” but rather resting in Christ alone for salvation.
- Life. The world offers life in all the wrong places and through all the wrong things. Christ is the giver or life. Jesus was born in order to die for our eternal life. Teach it over and over again to your children!
So even though your youngsters are out of school for Christmas break, remember that the School of Jesus never takes a holiday!
When my oldest daughter was ready to enter our church youth group, I found myself in a series of discussions with members who had decided to not allow their children to attend. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but this caught me off-guard. Was it because they disagreed with what was being taught in our youth ministry? No. Was it a distrust of our youth leadership. No. Was it a rejection of the whole idea of youth ministry? Partially. But for the most part, it was the fear of negative peer influence on their children. There were clearly “bad kids” in the youth group that could unduly impact their child’s spirituality. This made the church youth group a dangerous place.
Since that time, I have talked with other parents who have chosen this particular viewpoint. And still others have committed to the youth group for a time, then pulled out their children after they experience some un-Christian behaviors among their church peers. While I can understand and respect the responsibility to protect our children from bad influences, bullying, or the making of corrupt friendships, I can’t support the abandonment of a church youth ministry. So, let me offer some random thoughts on this point of disagreement:
- Should we be surprised there are pagans in our youth groups? Yes, I’m talking about non-Christian youth who come from Christian homes. They’re teenagers! No, I don’t espouse the view that all teens have to go through some sort of rebellious phase. And, no, not all teens experiment with drugs, sex, and ungodly rock-and-roll. But it’s unrealistic and idealistic to believe that your youth group is filled with Christians who are passionate about serving Jesus. Even those teens who profess Christ are often immature and foolish.
- So maybe we should enact church discipline and bar the “bad kids” from the youth group. But aren’t these the very teens who need to be sitting under the teaching of the Word and the ministry or godly youth staff? On the other hand, they clearly aren’t listening, or even attending youth group with the desire to learn God’s Word. Now, I’m not opposed to elders being involved with families to address particular public sins of their teenagers. This is most appropriate. But even this will not eliminate the potential for bad behavior in the youth group.
- Just an observation: Most of these same parents allow their teenagers to participate on a sports team, or in community activities, or even in public schools. I’m guessing there are pagans in those places as well. So, what’s the difference? Is it that we expect “worldly” organizations to be unsafe places and the church to be a safe place? Personally, I can see the need for more protection from groups that are not led by, or claim to be, “Christian” than the local church of Jesus Christ–even with sinners in her midst.
- What about positive peer pressure? Is there such a thing? Last time I checked, the New Testament is filled with truths about how light overcomes darkness, and the Kingdom of God prevails against the Kingdom of darkness. Do we believe this is operative in the church youth group? It seems to me that if we are training our children in our homes to live as followers of Christ, then a necessary part of their training is for them to learn how to stand strong against negative peer pressure. But many of these parents treat their children as if their commitment to Christ is a fragile thing, easily destroyed by sinful peers. If this is a true concern, then it seems that more work needs to be done at home to educate, train, and discipline.
- All of this raises a bigger question in my mind: Are we raising a generation of spiritual weaklings? Are we so concerned with protecting our children from suffering, hearing bad words, seeing bad things etc., that we aren’t building strength of character in them? I’m not suggesting that we ship our teens off into the bowels of evil, surrounded by wicked peers. This is church youth group! If they can’t handle the pagans in the youth group now, how will they handle them in college, the workplace, and the world?
Just to be crystal clear: All of these thoughts rest on the foundation that your youth group has godly, mature leadership, is teaching sound doctrine, and is wisely supervising youth activities. If these are true, then to keep your teen out of youth group is depriving them of essential opportunities to grow in character and mature in Christ!
[Note: You will want to read my last post on “Ordinary Children’s Ministry” here to give these next thoughts some essential context.] As a parent, my deepest desire is to see my eight children become Christians–and more than that, ORDINARY Christians. Yes, this goes against the grain of what my sinful heart would rather see in them–academic, athletic, and career achievements. To be ordinary is to be NORMAL. It’s what’s commonplace or STANDARD. It is regular, routine, habitual, and day-to-day. Ordinary may sound average, mediocre, plain, and boring–but it’s quite the opposite. If only we had more ordinary Christians in this world, there would be extraordinary expansion of the Kingdom of God.
Let me begin to explain what I mean with a simple comparison. My desire for my children to be ordinary Christians is akin to my desire for ordinary customer service when I’m purchasing something or needing technical assistance. For those of you older than thirty-five, you will remember a time when real, live, caring and concerned people actually helped and served you when you needed it. This was an ordinary, normal, regular part of any shopping experience. Today, to actually have a good customer service experience seems extra-ordinary and shocking! We have moved so far away from truly serving customers in the retail world that it is no longer part of day-to-day life. In the same way, I would suggest that an “ordinary Christian” seems so extraordinary because we don’t see them often enough, nor are we training our young people to be one.
So what is an ordinary Christian? Why should I want my child to be “just” ordinary? Here’s are the beginnings of my list:
- An ordinary Christian believes the historic GOSPEL. Not some new, improved, more exciting version of the gospel that adds something (health, wealth, prosperity) to Jesus. The ordinary Christian knows his salvation is by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.
- An ordinary Christian is filled with JOY–and his joy is in the Lord. His circumstances don’t determine his moods and his fulfillment in this life.
- An ordinary Christian is CONTENT. He is not restless, driven by his own selfish ambition. Whatever his lot in life, he trusts in the Lord’s provision for him.
- An ordinary Christian SEEKS God’s Kingdom first. He’s not seeking to make his own name or put his stamp on the world. He’s not looking to build his own kingdom and his own legacy.
- An ordinary Christian LOVES God and other people. He is not a lover of self, or stuck in ongoing self-satisfaction or self-exaltation.
- An ordinary Christian is WISE. He’s mature, discerning, and not swayed by the lies of this world. His decisions are made on the basis of the Word of God.
- An ordinary Christian wants to DECREASE so Christ will increase. Less of me, more of Christ is his cry! He wants other people to make more of Christ rather than more of him.
Get the idea? If you are a parent, is this the list you want to describe your child? Or does it sound to mundane, too average, just too ordinary? The truth is that this goes against nearly everything our children hear and observe in this world. We live in a culture of celebrity, where everyone is seeking his fifteen minutes of fame. Athletics are no longer recreation, but the most essential part of childhood (in order to achieve future stardom). We tell our children they can be whatever they want to be–with the real objective being the search for money, power, and glory. The role models of most kids are superheroes, actors, and athletes–someone “bigger” than what’s ordinary. Even Christian parents seem to find their most pride and joy in the achievements of their children, trumpeting them throughout social media on a regular basis.
I like what Bill Cosby had to say on this subject at a 2012 graduation commencement (quoted by Michael Horton in his book Ordinary):
You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try. The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility. Stop being narcissistic about your ‘dream,’ getting everyone else to fit into it. You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!
But my favorite comedian of all time has it just a bit wrong. If our young people lived Christian, quiet, ordinary, responsible, lives of integrity, they would change the world. Ordinary Christian lives are used by God to do extraordinary things! And, if more Christian parents had this ordinary goal in mind and devoted themselves to the “ordinary” teaching, training, disciplining and praying for thing children, just think of the results. By God’s grace, we would have children who show the world our glorious Jesus Christ. What’s more extraordinary than that?
Ordinary. Adjective. The opposite of exciting. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Why in the world would we want to be a part of anything ordinary? The last thing we want in our church is just a plain old, ordinary, boring children’s ministry! After all, we live in an age where most people expect–even demand–events and programs and activities which are special enough to keep their interest. If anything, the church is supposed to be extraordinary in order to compete with all the really cool things the world has to offer.
After reading Michael Horton’s newest book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, I’m even more convinced that our churches need to return to ordinary ministry in all of its excellence. Because we live in a time of restlessness and the longing for things radical and extreme, even Christians can often expect their church to deliver one exhilarating experience after another. This especially seems to be the case for youth ministry as well as children’s ministry. But in the end, this search for something that gives chills and thrills ends up moving Christians and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ away from their essential, ordinary purposes and mission.
Before I summarize what “Ordinary Children’s Ministry” looks like, let’s make sure we reorient ourselves to the beauty of being ordinary. Ordinary is what is NORMAL. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Ordinary is what’s commonplace or STANDARD. Again, all good. Ordinary is REGULAR, ROUTINE, HABITUAL, and DAY-TO-DAY. Have I lost you yet? Am I verging on defining what is boring? That’s what Satan would have us think. He loves when Christians become consumed with the Next Big Thing (as Horton says), to escape what seems mundane and routine. Ordinary is NOT average, it is NOT mediocre, it is NOT the avoidance of excellence. It is the ordinary life that is most able to be extraordinary in this fallen world. [If this still sounds like an oxymoron to you, read Horton’s book and let it challenge your mindset!]
So, here’s what an Ordinary Children’s Ministry looks like:
- The local church welcomes children into congregational life–into the worship and service of the church. Adults see children as a gift from God, members of the covenant community, who need to be taught, educated, and discipled. They do not ignore children, see them as a distraction or nuisance, or relegate them constantly to the periphery.
- The local church leads parents in the training and discipline of their own children. It also comes alongside parents with resources and relationships that will help them in their Godly endeavor.
- The local church ensures that its priority is to teach children ALL of God’s Word, not just the “major” stories over and over again. And, teachers are committed to not teach the Bible in a moralistic or legalistic manner, falsely training children to strive for their own salvation and goodness.
- The local church works with parents to teach children the doctrines of the faith. In days past, this was simply referred to as “catechizing” the children–using questions and answers to teach what Christians are to believe about God, the world, and ourselves.
- The local church provides community for children to learn to love God and love one another, pointing them to Jesus Christ.
- The local church prays for the next generation to not become another “Judges” generation who forgets the LORD and does what is right in their own eyes. The church prays for the true conversion of their children.
- The local church is the place where the “ordinary” means of grace–the Word and the Sacraments–are made available to ALL, according to the proper Biblical manner and process.
Does all that sound too ORDINARY for you? Where are all the bells and whistles? Certainly, there are events and programs that churches can and even should provide for children. But these must never take the place or distract from the ORDINARY mission of our churches for the next generation. When we become overly concerned about giving children the “adventures of a lifetime” or the Next Big Thing in order to make them want to come to church, then we feed their sinful desires for all that is extra-ordinary. They need the ordinary Gospel and work of the Spirit in their lives on a day-to-day basis.
In my next post, I will further elaborate on how Christians should all long for our children and youth to become “Ordinary Christians!”
Do you think the inventor of the forward-facing cell phone camera imagined the “selfie” craze of the past few years? If he (or she) knew anything about human nature, this obsession with taking and posting endless pictures of ourselves was clearly predictable. What else would I want to do with a camera on my phone? And, who doesn’t want to see how great I look all the time?
Just a few sad and troubling facts about selfies which came across the news wire in the past few weeks:
- The word “selfie” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
- A Polish couple fell off a cliff to their deaths trying to take a selfie.
- A French beach has banned cellphones so beachgoers will stop taking selfies to boast about being at the beach.
- A number of celebrities became outraged that their cellphones had been hacked and nude selfies posted on the web. (Easy solution to this problem: Stop taking naked selfies!)
Certainly, the selfie craze exposes the fact that many people today are self-obsessed. But this is nothing new. Humankind has always been driven by the sin of pride and an overly inflated self-worth. When people reject God as Father and center of their lives, the only real replacement is self! We come out of the womb self-obsessed–putting a cellphone in our hands doesn’t cause the problem. This technology, linked with the world wide web, just proclaims to the world how self-focused we really are.
So, I had a brainstorm on this very irritating selfie subject while I was teaching Sunday School today. We were studying the first chapters of the Book of Hosea, where the prophet Hosea is instructed to marry an adulterous woman (Gomer). Why in the world did Hosea have to marry this woman (and even have adulterous children)? Because God used Hosea’s marriage and family as an object lesson to show the Israelites their real selves. On the outside they looked like the people of God; on the inside they were adulterers–loving and serving idols instead of the one, true God.
Which led me to this crazy thought: What if all new smartphones came with technology that took a selfie of our real selves? Instead of snapping a picture of our external bodies, the camera would reveal only our real selves. The whole world would be treated to hideous photographs of sin and wickedness! They would see us for what we really are (outside of Christ) — adulterers and idolaters of the worst kind. It wouldn’t be pretty and no one would be thought of as beautiful (or a hottie). That’s when the selfie obsession would come to a screeching halt.
Thankfully, even without that fantastical technology, this crazy self-promotion and self-glorification can come for the end. For the Christian, out selfie obsession comes to a halt with the following words from the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The only way to end our self-obsession is radical Christ-esteem. Instead of putting our selfies on display, the Christian longs to show others Jesus. Outside of Christ, there is nothing to see here! The life we live in the flesh is always to be lived “in Christ” and not in and of ourselves.
Have you taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge yet? Or are you one of just a handful of people in the entire world who has stayed dry? This ultra-viral social media campaign designed to raise awareness and money for this dreaded disease has been amazingly successful. Celebrities, politicians, and almost all of your friends have been dunked with ice water, passing the challenge on to at least three other people. I don’t know the most recent totals, but the ALSA has raised at least 15 million more dollars this year than last. Fundraisers across the non-profit landscape are currently plotting the next fill-in-the-blank challenge!
Being generally charitable folk, Christians have taken the Ice Bucket Challenge as well. I would guess that many have also written a check of some size to ALSA. It’s a great thing to see so many responding to the challenge so quickly and decisively. In many other cases, rapid action to a good cause like this is hard to come by. So an obvious conclusion is: Christians need to challenge each other more often! Which just so happens to be what the Bible says in Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV):
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Do you see it? As a regular part of the Christian life, we are to “stir up” (challenge) one another to love and good works! This is a vital form of encouragement–helping others to do what is right, for the glory of God. Part of this regular challenge is to call upon one another to not neglect the worship of God and the fellowship of the saints. And, the writer of Hebrews says that we should be in the habit of challenging each other to love and good works even more as we get closer to Christ’s return.
So it is perfectly appropriate to challenge one another to give to any number of charities. But there are a plethora of other Biblical challenges to proclaim to other Christians that may or may not include an ice water dunking:
- A challenge to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.
- A challenge to wives to respect and honor their husbands.
- A challenge to children to obey their parents, for this is right.
- A challenge to care for the widows and orphans in our midst.
- A challenge to give generously to our Bible-believing churches and to Kingdom-building ministries.
- A challenge to get “off the pew” and get more involved in church ministries.
- A challenge to evangelize the nations.
- A challenge to remain unstained from the world.
- A challenge to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- A challenge to love our neighbors as ourselves.
What an amazing thing it would be if we would open our mouths more often and call upon our brothers and sisters in Christ to love and good works. What if videos showed up on social media regularly for these most important causes? Maybe they wouldn’t become viral and be taken up by all the celebrities and athletes of our world, but they would certainly glorify God!
Or, as an alternative, why not make it simply a way of life to speak to those closest to you and challenge them personally to love God and others and to do good works for Him. We all need to be challenged and encouraged in this way!
I was recently speaking with a member of a church who recently joined their children’s ministry committee. Her church uses a broadly evangelical Children’s Sunday School curriculum, focused more on fun and fluff than the sound teaching of Scripture. So, she recommended to the committee that they take a look at our One Story Ministries materials. The general response was something like: “We want our children to enjoy themselves and have fun in Sunday School, learning things that are more applicable to their lives.” Dismayed, she asked one of her assistant pastors why they were using a curriculum which doesn’t teach the same sound doctrine as the rest of the church. His response (my paraphrase) was: “It’s okay to use material that is lighter and not so theologically sound in children’s ministry. We can correct that later, and in other places in the church.”
Now, I wish this sentiment about Children’s Sunday School was an exception to the rule in our conservative, evangelical and even Reformed churches–but I fear it represents a significant group out there. I sum it up as the “Entertainment Now, Sound Doctrine Later” crowd. The feeling is that we want children to enjoy being at church and hear interesting and relevant Bible stories while they are young; and then, learn all that boring theology later on. So, as the assistant pastor says, we can “correct” the doctrine they learned incorrectly sometime later on–or from the pulpit or in the home. The grand priority in this thinking is to see children who can’t wait to go to Sunday School because it is the most fun that they have all week.
I have addressed in another post that “fun” isn’t the antidote for boredom for our children. It also isn’t the preventative medicine for keeping our children interested in church or the Bible. And, I have written often on the myth that teaching the Bible and sound doctrine is automatically boring and lifeless for children. So, what I want to address here is the false notion that we can simply and easily correct our children’s false or limited views of Bible stories with sound doctrine “later.” This is a dangerous assumption which can reap lifelong consequences. And, from a practical standpoint, it just doesn’t make much sense.
Consider some practical analogies first. Would a father teach his child how to hit a baseball incorrectly, or only some of the rules of baseball, with a plan to correct all that misinformation later? O.r would a school teacher allow students to learn wrong principles of math with hopes of correcting them in a later grade? So why would we knowingly teach the Bible (or not teach the Bible) in a way that will educate our children in a poor theology when they are most impressionable? Won’t they quite possibly have a difficult time un-learning what they think they already know about the stories of Scripture?
I think this perspective in Children’s Sunday School is grounded in a reductionist view of children. It stems from a belief that children can only learn the simplest of things, and that they cannot comprehend the more challenging things of life. To be sure, it takes many years for children to develop brains that can analyze and synthesize more difficult concepts. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn truth from the very beginning of their lives! We just don’t give children enough credit for what they can know and learn from the earliest of days. And, we can often fall into the trap of thinking that keeping things “light” will somehow build the foundation for “heavy” things later.
As Christian parents, we are always in the business of correcting the lies that our children believe, and what they are being taught by their own sin, Satan, and the world. What we shouldn’t have to correct is the teaching in our own churches and Sunday Schools! Our children need to be taught the truth of God’s Word from infancy, over their entire lives, so the Holy Spirit can transform them into lovers of the one, true God.