What Are They Doing?

I was amazed at what was unfolding before me.  I had just given the first altar call in my ministry life and suddenly, kids started to come forward, first one, then three and before I knew it, 59 of the 64 fourth, fifth and sixth grade boys were filling the front of the camp lodge indicating that they wanted to follow Christ!

As much as I would have liked to think that God was calling me to take Billy Graham’s place as an evangelist, He wasn’t.

Something wasn’t right… and I knew it.

I looked at the 5 boys still seated and saw the bewildered looks on their faces.  My altar call had been confusing and even a little manipulative.  Who knows why all those kids responded that night?  Was it because they wanted to know Christ?  Or because they thought it was the cool thing to do? Or because everyone else was going forward and they didn’t want to be left out?

The last thing I wanted to do was to mislead a kid into thinking that he was a true believer when in fact he had just been caught up in the emotions of a moment.

That night at Jr. Boys Week of camp caused me to face a vital question: When someone responds to an opportunity of follow Christ, just what are they doing?  Are they responding in faith to Jesus with an understanding of their need for a savior and what He accomplished through His death and resurrection, or are they responding to an emotional experience?  Or possibly their response is a step towards salvation, but not yet an expression of faith?

I realize that only the Lord knows the heart and intentions of each person, so how do we know what is going on?

I wrestled with this through the years until I realized that Jesus gave four different calls to people that met them where they were on their spiritual journey and moved them forward.

Call #1  – “Come and see.”

When people are introduced the Jesus, they often have reservations and questions about Him.  Jesus recognizes this and gives them the freedom to investigate Him.  He is Truth, and He knows that He will stand up under any and all honest scrutiny, so He welcomes it.

When two of John the Baptist’s disciples first saw Jesus, they asked Him where He was staying and Jesus responded, “Come and see”.  In other words, “Check me out” (John 1:38-39).  Later, a Pharisee named Nicodemus had questions, and Jesus welcomed his inquiry (John 3:1-21).

Call #2  –  “Follow Me.

Matthew and Philip were given this call (Matthew 9:9; John 1:43).  This is a call to learn more about Jesus by following Him and seeing how the Lord makes a difference in day-to-day life – to become a disciple in the broadest terms.  Answering this call is not yet true faith in Christ, but is a step towards saving faith and leads to a greater understanding of who Christ is and what He accomplished on the cross.

Some people who answer this call become active in the local church and believe that they are saved, when in fact they are not.  Jesus made this clear in Matthew 7:21-23 when He spoke of their lack of saving faith and impending judgment.  These people would also include Judas Iscariot as well as the disciples who chose to walk away from Jesus in John 6:66.

But for some people, coming to faith in Christ is a process that grows and deepens until the person comes to realize their need for a savior.  I am one of those people.  I first responded to the gospel as a six year old, but it wasn’t until I was eleven that I fully understood that I was a sinner and Jesus was offering me the gift of eternal life through faith in Him.  That night, I exercised faith and became a child of God by answering call #3.

Call #3  –  “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men”

Peter and Andrew were first given this call in Mark 1:17.  This call is where salvation takes place.  We are invited to trust in Jesus and commit ourselves to Him, and experience the transforming power of eternal life in Christ (Matthew 10:38-39; 2 Corinthians 5:17).  Evidence of answering this call is seen in the transformation that occurs.  Jesus makes us into something that we weren’t before – fishers of men, children of God, saints – giving us a new life purpose and vision.

Call #4  –  “Do you love Me more than these?”

This call to total surrender to Jesus is what Peter received in John 21:15 when Jesus asked him, “Do you love me more than these?”  The “these” Jesus spoke about included Peter’s boat pulled up on the beach next to them, the catch of 153 large fish, as well as his friends and family standing nearby.  Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him more than his livelihood, financial success and stability, as well as his family and friends.  In other words Jesus was asking Peter if he was willing to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).

 

These calls are not a 1-2-3-step process for everyone.  For some, it is, but for others, like the apostle Paul, their first call is a combination of #3 and #4.  What is important is that we realize these different calls so we can respond appropriately to where a person is on their journey to Christ.

To help us whenever we are talking with someone about a personal relationship with Jesus we need to remember to:

  1. Be praying for discernment and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Do not assume you know what their spiritual need is.
  3. Ask clarifying questions.
  4. Respond to their answers as well as to their questions.
  5. Ask them if they are ready to make a commitment to Jesus as their  Savior.

Persevere

I didn’t expect to learn such a huge life lesson when I stepped off the bus before a high school track meet my sophomore year.

It was a dual meet, so many of the kids who normally wouldn’t participate had the opportunity to run. My friend Tom was one of those kids. He was to run in the two-mile race—eight laps around the track.

Tom didn’t have much athletic ability or speed, and he was running against some fast runners. One had already qualified for the Olympic tryouts.

As soon as the race started, Tom dropped to the back. As it continued, he fell farther and farther behind—to the point that when every one of the other runners had crossed the finish line, Tom still had a full lap to run. At that point, the track meet official stepped in front of him and told him the race was over and he was to step off the track.

But Tom didn’t break stride. He simply stepped off the track and kept running. Soon the rest of us realized what he was doing—he wasn’t going to quit until he finished his race.

When he was about halfway around the track, our opponents realized what was going on. As Tom rounded the final curve, members of both teams met him, cheering him on and clearing a path on the infield of the track so he could finish. Before Tom reached the finish line, the spectators in the stadium where on their feet, cheering loudly.

I still remember his smile and look of joy as he finished his race. He was a winner, not because he won the race, but because he finished the race set before him.

That day Tom taught me what enduring to the end—persevering—really means.

Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1b-2).

I don’t know what your race looks like—it’s different for each of us—but it is still to be run with perseverance and endurance.

One common race is that of meeting all the needs and demands of leadership in your church’s children’s ministry. VBS, summer camps, and the missions trip are done, and now you find yourself neck-deep in the fall push and the looming demands of preparing for the Christmas pageant and special events.

Added to that is the fact that you still need three nursery workers, two children’s church workers, and “a partridge in a pear tree” (all of whom must pass your background checks) to meet your minimum staffing needs.

Or maybe your race includes juggling all the demands of family, church ministry, and your marriage while attempting to actively build relationships in the community and sharing your faith.

For some, the race seems to be run in the dark where abandonment, loneliness, and a lack of purpose are your running mates.

So how do you run the race with perseverance in these kinds of situations?

Let’s learn from the instructions in Hebrews 12:1-2. 

Lighten your load.        

Make a habit of regularly stepping back and doing a personal inventory of your life (see Psalm 139:23–24). Allow the Holy Spirit to begin to open your eyes to the amount of garbage you’ve allowed to become attached to your life and schedule. If He uncovers hidden sin, deal with it immediately. If you don’t, you are essentially trying to run your race by cheating and you will fail.

I have found that it is often the weight of the unnecessary or worthless activity that I allow in my life that holds me back in my race. I have found it beneficial is to annually keep a detailed time log during a two-week period. When I do, I am always surprised with how much time I am wasting by allowing the dribble of life to again become attached to my life. For me, this dribble includes the mindless use of social media, watching too much TV, playing games on my i-phone, and just wasting time being busy with things of no importance.

Commit to finish the race

Marathon runners don’t start the race with the attitude of “I think I will run until I get tired or until something better comes along.” They are committed to run the race to the best of their ability, with an understanding that they will face hardships, hazards, and difficulties—to endure to the end.

Sometimes while we are running the race the Lord will move us into another ministry or even cause the ministry in which we are serving to come to an end. We need to realize this is not failure on our part, nor is it the end of the race. Rather, the Lord is revealing to us that our race is on an unexpected path. We are to continue running the race, even during times of transition. 

Keep your eyes on Jesus and the example He set.

The race we are running is all about Jesus. It starts, ends, and is all about Him every step of the way. He is our reason for running this race. It is He who enables us to run it and gives us the example for us to follow.

Jesus promises to never leave us or forsake us while we are running. And He is our reward and joy at the finish line!

Through the years I have had the privilege of competing with some great athletes who set records and won awards. For the most part, I don’t even remember their names. But I do remember Tom.

Thank you, Tom Nestor, for teaching me a lesson that day. It greatly impacted my life. You are a winner!

 

Becoming What We Love

It’s wonderful to come across a book that’s so engaging and challenging you can’t put it down! When a book makes you want to stop and change everything you’ve been doing, you want everyone you know to pick up a copy and read it. This is how I felt recently when I read You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit  by James K. A. Smith. This book not only changed the way I think about worship; it also changed how I think about discipleship in children’s ministry.

Our Loves Define Us

Smith’s basic premise is that we human beings were made to flourish; we all have a vision in our heads about what a flourishing “good life” looks like. We want to picture things we think will make us happy, content, and free; things that capture our hearts and imaginations, such as pursuing the idols of wealth, power, or status. When we love these rival gods instead of the One for whom we were made, we don’t realize how they are shaping our hearts. Our captive hearts need to be realigned with what is real, true, and good as citizens of God’s Kingdom—the ultimate good and our ultimate hope; our hearts need to be re-formed by the Holy Spirit to understand that following Jesus is the only true life that flourishes.

 

What This Means for Kids’ Ministry

So what does this mean for kids’ ministry? To start, it means that leaders need to understand the importance of a child’s heart and imagination.

If you stop and think about it, children from a very young age are mesmerized by movies and TV shows that capture their imaginations. They are transported from this world to another as part of an adventure. They want to be a part of the story. It is the same for adults—many of us also enjoy movies and a good story.

The gospel is the greatest story of all; the best part is that it is not make-believe—it’s reality! As leaders, we need to tell the gospel story in ways that will draw children in and help them realize it is the story of their lives and that they have a part to play.

We need to do more than teach biblical facts (although facts about the Bible and Bible skills are important). We need to teach what God communicates through His Word in ways that will shape and form a child’s heart and imagination. We need to communicate in a way that helps kids see that the “good life” is not about money, power, or status, but it is about being in a right relationship with God. In order to teach this, however, leaders need to be convinced of this truth. We will be unable to draw kids into the greatest story if we are not drawn into it ourselves.

As kids’ hearts and imaginations are formed in light of the reality of the gospel narrative, we will be participating in the work of fulfilling the Great Commission by making them disciples of the good news. We need to help children see the glories of Jesus and that knowing Him is better than any make-believe story out there, which are mere shadows of the ultimate story—the gospel.

 

Shh

Does anyone else notice that the voices of our culture are getting louder? I don’t mean the message. I mean the voices. The voices are loud. They are strong. Sometimes filled with high-octane, celebratory energy. More often they are angry and disagreeable. The intense volume of voices sets some alarm bells off for me, because our children are exposed to more media than ever before. Although I have no hard evidence to support my claim, I will say it all the same, because I believe common sense accepts my conclusion—voices are getting louder.

When my children were little there was a new cartoon show featuring a character with a knapsack, a map, a multi-ethnic worldview, and an adventurous spirit. I should have loved this character, but I could not enjoy the show at all. To my ears it sounded like the main character was yelling. All. The. Time. Oh, how I longed for the dulcet and calming voice of that friendly neighbor, Fred Rogers.

When I first began children’s ministry it was at summer camp. I was told I was a natural fit. I had a clear, strong voice that commanded attention and that kids would follow. This voice was every camp director’s dream. It is true that when working with large numbers of kids I still bring out that loud, rallying voice from time to time. But, oh, how I long to work more frequently at engaging kids with a hushed, quiet, yet inspiring voice.

In a culture that puts loud voices on TV programs, YouTube clips, and even in church leadership positions, I wonder—how do we help kids learn to listen to the still small voice of God? It is a worthy question given our “louder is better” social environment. I wonder upon this today, and invite your wondering too. This is what I am pondering:

1) Redeeming Quiet Time. Spend enough time in children’s programming and you will come to observe a noticeable absence of quiet times. The logic, I suppose, has been that a busy kid is a happy kid—and I agree. While I in no way bring criticism toward well-programmed children, I do desire to see us redeem the notion of quiet time. Quiet time is too often focused on making kids be quiet. What would it look like if instead quiet time was redeemed to be a time when kids are invited to become extraordinary listeners? Passionate intercessors? Deep thinkers? Filled with questions? Imagining what God imagines? Quiet time can be highly effective in building a dynamic children’s program, but it will never happen accidentally. Quiet time will require explanation, invitation, and freedom for experimentation.

2) Increasing Dynamic Range. It is all too tempting to hop on board the loud voices train. As a trained musician, I became aware that one of the best ways to highlight a crescendo (getting louder) is to precede it with a decrescendo (getting softer). This is the effective employment of dynamics. So too in our children’s programming, I wonder what it looks like to increase our dynamic range? We are likely already good at making loud voices louder. How are we doing at the other dynamic settings? Are big, compelling presentations countered with moderate volume group dialogue? Are quieter exchanges made easier to enter into with silent contemplation? What is your current dynamic range? What would it take to widen the range? My guess is the most opportunities to expand exist toward quiet and silent times.

3) Expect God to Speak. I will only speak for me, but if I’m honest, I often find these quiet times a challenge because of my doubts that God will speak, or move, or in anyway honor the efforts of kids to engage in this counter-cultural activity of silence. To this I have only one reflection to offer: God is so much bigger than my doubts. Time after time these opportunities result in genuine spiritual encounters that the kids are eager to share about. I will add that time after time there are also kids that feel nothing but frustrated by the exercise. Still I am encouraged in my faith as I hear what God is actively working out in the lives of those who are learning to expect His presence. These gentle engagements are worth any temporary discomfort in trying something unfamiliar. God speaks all the time. How are we shaping kids to expect to hear His voice?

It just may be that wrestling with these ideas will help shape how a generation draws near to God in intimacy and with expectant hearts. How do we foster opportunities for children of all ages to encounter truth that comes quietly, insight that comes calmly, direction that comes in silent spaces? Shh. Let us listen together. Quietly. What is the Lord saying?