Facebook Can’t Replace Church

Mark Zuckerberg recently said he believes Facebook can become a force for community organization, much like churches or little league sports. His comments have prompted reflection on both the Church’s place amid a changing cultural, and the role of technology in organizing people. Some scoffed at Zuckerberg’s ambitions, while others asked if Facebook could indeed replace the Church.

Since the future is not for us to know, perhaps the best thing to do with comments like these is to see what they bring into focus and what they fail to see altogether. Lest we think church can easily be replaced, I’d like to turn the attention to what many inside and outside Christianity often fail to see in regards to the Church. God’s design for humans, where Christians find their meaning and the reality of the church’s mission provide us three reasons why Facebook (or any other institution) can’t replace church.

Read the rest of my article over at Relevant.

Why We Shouldn’t Overemphasize (or Underemphasize) the Sermon’s Appeal to American Churchgoers

A new poll of Americans churchgoers by Gallup found what appeals to them most is biblically-based sermons. Naturally, everyone thinks this speaks to the preeminence of their own method. And many of their points are well taken.

A more interesting (and helpful) discussion, though, is what we should do based on these findings. Should we focus primarily on service planning, pouring a higher percentage of the budget into lights, A/V equipment, and screens? Should pastors ditch their three-point, Keller-like outlines and start listening to more Andy Stanley?

Before coming to any conclusions, it would be wise to remember what these findings actually are. Gallup was polling American Christian churchgoers, and its focus was asking them what was most appealing to them about church. As stated already, their answer was the sermon. But there’s an inherent danger in reading statistics like these.

The danger is that we over-(or under) emphasize the findings. Yes, Americans like their biblical sermons (and praise God for that). But does that mean the sermon should be the church’s primary focus? Hardly.

I can think of two reasons why we should be careful in overemphasizing these results.

Two reasons we shouldn’t overemphasize these findings

First, the church’s primary mission is making disciples that reach the world for Christ. By that metric, the church in America is not doing so great. Mainline denominations are shrinking. The percentage of Nones is on the rise. The number of people who share Jesus with the people around them is abysmal. The same people who are going to church less and almost never share their faith really like sermons, but apparently those sermons alone aren’t enough to encourage them to do their part in fulfilling the Great Commission. (Yes, this is painting with a broad brush, but that’s what we’re talking about – polls and research showing popular opinion and statistics.)

Second, the church shouldn’t make decisions about its practices based solely on what appeals to people. By all means, we should be adapting the gospel message to each generation and context, but that doesn’t mean we tailor our approach simply based on what appeals to them. If the average churchgoer almost never shares Jesus in their life, then should we really be basing our strategy on what appeals to them? Ice cream appeals most to my three children, but I don’t make parenting decisions based on that alone. I know they need to learn moderation, how to be kind and loving, how to have self-control. Making decisions solely with their priorities in mind might get them to like me, but it’s not going to shape their character. If I want what’s best for them, then I’ll involve them in activities that might appeal far less, like obeying their mother when she asks them to clean their room. I’ll still take them to get ice cream as a treat, but it can’t be the primary way they’re being shaped.

But as I said, the danger isn’t only in overemphasizing the sermon’s appeal to churchgoers, but underemphasizing it as well. Here are two reasons why.

Two reasons we shouldn’t underemphasize these findings

First, if biblical sermons appeal most to churchgoers, then church-planters and pastors had better be paying attention. Many in the missional church stream already downplay the importance of the sermon, but to do so is a mistake when we know its appeal. Regardless of the sermon’s importance in their spiritual formation (and I think it plays a significant role), its appeal to Americans is undeniable. So if we want to reach our communities for Christ, then we better be working as hard as we can to handle the Word rightly and communicate its Truth in a compelling way. Otherwise, there won’t be very many people to disciple.

Second, if the sermon appeals most to churchgoers, then this is the time we know we have their attention. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this: we live in an attention economy. Attention is money, and the world is working around the clock to make sure they get it. If Americans find sermons the most appealing part of church, then we should leverage their attention while we have it. That means our discipleship initiatives, mission experiences, serving opportunities, and much much more need to be highlighted during sermons. If you want people in a small group, talk about your own experience with one in an illustration. To take this further, the sermon content shouldn’t be relegated to the 30-45 minutes on the weekend. If that content is what is most appealing to them, break it down into discussion guides or devotional reflections. Edit it down into bite-size YouTube clips and send them to your people. Repurpose the sermon to engage people more, and along the way we might just find they learn it better and apply it more.

There is great value in the kind of polls and findings put out by Gallup and Barna and others. But there is also great danger. The task of the church is to discern what they might tell us about reaching and teaching the world for Christ. After all, the numbers change, but the mission stays the same.

4 More Attributes of Healthy Group Leaders

The health of any group rises or falls based on the health of its leader. That’s why it’s critical for group leaders to to assess their own health as Christ-followers and leaders. We previously covered 4 attributes of healthy group leaders as a way to help self-assess. Here are four more attributes of healthy group leaders.

1. Healthy group leaders are shepherds

To really care for the people in your group well, you have to take some kind of ownership over them. You have to look at them like they’re under your charge and take care of them accordingly. The Bible calls this being a shepherd.

Healthy group leaders are shepherds. They know their groups are made up of people who need guiding, steering, encouragement, and leadership. A good shepherd cares for the needs of their flock, whether or not it’s something they feel like doing at the moment.

Many people think only pastors are called to be shepherds in the church, but that’s not true. Yes, pastors are called to shepherd people, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones called to be shepherds.

If we care about people and we find ourselves in a leadership role, it means we’re being called to protect our groups from false teaching, care for their physical and emotional needs, and encourage them to be more and more like the Good Shepherd – Jesus.

But before you think of that as a burden, we should remind ourselves that while at times it can be difficult, it is first and foremost a great privilege from God. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that leaders need to understand that they will give an account for the souls of those they lead. It also tells us that we are to shepherd people with joy. Otherwise, we’re wasting our time and it won’t be worth everyone’s investment.

The people in our groups are ultimately God’s sheep that He’s entrusting to our care. That doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers; it simply means you need to care about them.

It means you need to care about them enough to check in after they’ve had a rough week. To put them in touch with a pastor if they need counseling. To bring them a meal or drop in and see how they’re doing.

Any particular task of a shepherd isn’t grandiose and it’s certainly not flashy. A shepherd’s job is one simple act of care after another. It’s tracking down a wandering sheep, or making sure they get water and shade and rest. These are things any caring person can do.

So the challenge here may be to think about whether you’re really loving your group well.

Ask yourself: Does my heart stir when I think my group members’ spiritual life, or does it ever even cross my mind? Do I get concerned when I think about their lack of growth, or does it not really bother me?

2. Healthy group leaders are servant-minded

The next attribute of a healthy leader goes hand in hand with being a shepherd. It’s that healthy group leaders are servant-minded.

Being servant-minded means that we want to always have the default setting of serving someone else with our time, gifts, and resources. It’s a mindset based off the example of Jesus. Jesus came to serve and to give his life away to those around him. If he’s the example, that’s what we should be doing as well.

In Jesus’ economy, those who want to be greatest must become the servants of all. In our culture of radical individualism, this is a call many of us don’t want to hear. Or at the very least we don’t want to abide by. It just doesn’t seem to make sense in our world where power and fame are what everyone’s after.

We have to remind ourselves that just before Jesus went to the cross he got down on his knees, took a towel and a wash basin, and cleaned the feet of his disciples. Think about that. The God of the Universe stooped down to serve those whom he had every right to demand to serve him. This is the servant-mindedness of Christ.

And it should be what we’re after.

Ask yourself: Would my group members think of me as servant-minded? Would they say that I lead the way in serving others or my family or our group?

3. Healthy group leaders share leadership

Leading a group for a long time can be tiring. Healthy group leaders know that, and they share the leadership accordingly.

One of the most important qualities of a good leader is that they’re always working on replacing themselves. They’re always working on developing other people to the point where they could do what they’re doing.

And that’s the basic call of every disciple of Jesus. To make other disciples who know how to obey everything Jesus commanded us and multiply themselves.

To develop someone means that at some point you’ll have to share responsibility with them and give them feedback on how they did. This is what Jesus did. He let people follow him for a year or so, then he sent them out to do some things on their own, but after that he had them come back and debrief how it went with him. Based on what they said and how it went he provided feedback to steer them in the right direction.

This is why group leaders should always be focused on developing an apprentice or future leader in their groups, because it encourages you to invite someone else into leading and makes you think about developing them.

Leading a group is far more than leading a discussion. There are administrative tasks like sending out emails or prayer requests. There are hospitality elements of getting food and drinks. There are service elements like planning serve days.

Healthy leaders spread the leadership tasks around wherever it makes sense and when someone is ready for it. It decreases the leader’s burden while increasing the group members’ responsibility and commitment.

So maybe there’s someone who can send out your weekly emails, or would love to host. Maybe there’s someone ready to start leading some of the discussions. Whatever those things are, start empowering people in your group to help with as many of those things as you can.

Ask yourself: Am I sharing leadership with anyone in my group? If not, what could I start sharing?

4. Healthy group leaders are always growing

Well that brings us to the final attribute of a healthy group leader – that they’re always growing.

A disciple of Jesus is a continual learner of the way of Jesus. That’s what the word disciple means, “learner.” Which means a disciple is never done learning.

The work of leadership is similar. None of us will ever be perfect leaders, so there is always some aspect of our leadership to work on.

The same can be said of our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives are never stagnant. We’re either growing or we’re shrinking. We’re either progressing or we’re regressing. We’re either focused on spiritual growth or we’re not.

To get better means we need to know where to improve, which means we need to spend time assessing and reflecting on our leadership and spiritual walk. With everything else going on in our lives it’s easy to take our eyes off the ball in this area, but we have to have a goal or a destination in mind. There’s a saying that if you don’t have a destination, you’ll get there every time.

That’s so true of our walk with Christ. If we don’t have a plan or a destination in mind, we’ll get somewhere, but it won’t be where we wanted to end up.

Ask yourself: Am I focused on my spiritual growth and my growth as a leader? Do I have a plan for growing?

4 Attributes of Healthy Group Leaders

Group health is directly related to leader health. The health of a groups ministry rises or falls based on the health of the leadership. That includes staff and pastoral leaders, but even more important is the health of the group leaders.

However, many group leaders don’t have a good sense of whether or not they’re healthy, and that’s largely the fault of pastors and leaders to equip them. How do you know if a group leader is healthy or not? If you’re a group leader, how do you know if you’re hitting the mark?

Here are 4 attributes of healthy group leaders.

1. Healthy group leaders have been transformed

The first and most important attribute of a healthy group leader is that they have been transformed. It’s really hard to lead someone where you haven’t been yourself. If we’re going to lead other people to transformation then we need to be people that have been transformed.

We need to be people that are marked by transformation. Being marked by transformation simply means that your life looks a lot different now than before you knew Jesus.

The Bible tells us that when we come to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then He puts the Holy Spirit inside of us. Don’t gloss over that detail. If you are a Christ-follower then you have the Spirit of the Living God inside of you. You have the same power that raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11).

The book of Ezekiel looks forward to the time where God was going to put His Spirit in His people. It talks about the transformation being like heart surgery where God removes a heart of stone from our body and replaces it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Ask yourself: Does that sound like me? Am I living with the knowledge and power that the Spirit of the Living God is inside of me, or do I need to focus on being transformed into the image of Jesus these next few months? Does my life look markedly different now than before I knew Jesus?

People that are transformed have lives that look different than the lives of those around them, which leads us to our next attribute.

2. Healthy group leaders are actively following Jesus

Imagine you asked your teenager to go and clean their room. Let’s say they come back in half an hour and you say, “Well, did you clean it?”

They say, “Um, no. But I memorized exactly how you said to clean it. Then, I read it in a few different translations. I even went to a midweek study just to make sure I understand exactly how you wanted me to clean it.”

Did they listen to you?

Far too often we treat following Jesus like a teenager cleaning their room. Many of us have been transformed by Jesus in the past, but we’re not being transformed by him in the present. It’s easy to make empty promises to Jesus, or to read the Bible as if it’s just another book of helpful tips instead of commands to be obeyed.

If we’re not actively following Jesus today, then not only are we not being obedient to what He’s told us to do, but our lives will undercut all our invitations to church and our best intentions to share our faith with our friends and neighbors. And if our lives give no evidence that our faith actually changes anything then why would anyone want what we have?

This becomes even more stark when thinking about leading other people to follow Jesus. You can’t lead a group of people into following Jesus if you aren’t following Him yourself.

Healthy group leaders are characterized by regular obedience to the commands of Jesus. Their lives give evidence of the faith they claim. Their invitations to church don’t ring hollow because their lives resemble something different. Their encouragement to follow Jesus more closely doesn’t come through like an empty product endorsement because it’s rooted in a life that’s marked by love, peace, gentleness, self-control, and on and on.

Ask yourself: Am I actively following Jesus?

If we’re really following Jesus, one of the things we’ll be doing is cultivating community centered around him, which is our next attribute.

3. Healthy group leaders cultivate Christ-centered community

Healthy group leaders cultivate Christ-centered community. It’s just who they are. It flows out of their love for Jesus and His church.

That doesn’t mean it always comes naturally or it’s easy. But it’s something healthy group leaders are committed to, and something they’re always working towards.

Jesus first calls us to Himself, then He calls into relationship with others He’s called to Himself.

Healthy group leaders get that. They also get that we are a church that has been given one Great Commission and two Great Commandments. That we are to go across the street and around the world making disciples that follow Jesus (Great Commission), and we are to be a community of people that loves God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loves our neighbors as ourselves (Great Commandments).

Jesus is at the center of all of that activity, so healthy group leaders put him at the center of their groups.

Practically, this means your time as a group is focused on and centered around Jesus. It means your gatherings are filled with the  life-giving joy of being one of His sons or daughters. It means you do studies and have discussions based around the truths found in the Bible.

Healthy group leaders know that it’s only those groups which have Jesus at the center will lead people to follow Him more closely.

Ask yourself: So what’s the center of my group? Is it me? Is it our social time? Is it having to get through a certain amount of material? Or is it Jesus Himself?

4. Healthy group leaders are friends with spiritual explorers

The next marker of a healthy group leader has to do with their relationships outside the church, specifically with those who are explorers or non-Christians.

Healthy group leaders are first and foremost followers of Christ. If you are following Christ’s commands then you will be someone that builds relationships with those far from God in order to tell them about Him.

Jesus gave us the Great Commission to go and make disciples, and he gave us the Holy Spirit to help us do it. That means every Christian is both commanded and empowered to share their faith in Jesus. It can be difficult and awkward, but it’s just something we have to find a way to do.

As a group leader, this is something you have the chance to model to the rest of your group who may struggle in this area. Whether you like it or not, your group members look to you as an example of what to do and not to do.

Ask yourself: When my group members look at my life, do they see someone whose faith is pervasive throughout their life, or is it something I keep to myself? 

A Simple Template for Family Worship with Preschoolers

Family worship should be a basic discipline of a believing family. Tragically, it’s infrequently taught and modeled in American churches today. The reasons are varied, ranging from not knowing how to not having time, or simply not seeing the importance of it.

Nik Ripken notes this deficiency in The Insanity of Obedience, saying,

“We have discovered that many families do not know how to do this and, in some cases, they are simply not willing to try. Some families resort to playing a DVD, or watching worship through the Internet, of a worship service from a sending church, and they presume that the playing of that electronic tool has been ‘worship’ for them. This substitute for worship, however, is severely lacking. When there is no opportunity to gather with a group for worship, it is essential for the family to worship on its own. We have been surprised how difficult this is for most families.”

At the most basic societal level, God instituted the family. It is the building block of all human civilization, and it is the model for how God’s family, the Church, is to function. At the same time, man is meant to worship, and, in fact, he can’t help it. Why, then, do we neglect worshiping God in this most basic sense, and even outsource the activity to others?

The need for family worship

Perhaps in America it’s because we have such freedom of worship and gathering that it seems less effective to perform daily worship in the confines of our homes when we could have the professionals at the church facilitate it for us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t worship in churches or that we should all call our families house-churches. Of course we should worship corporately as churches. But we should also be able to worship in our homes and among our friends, or as the New Testament refers to it, “from house to house.”

As a husband and father, I realized after my third child was born and my older two were approaching preschool age that this practice would be essential to the spiritual formation of my children and wife. I began to see that without a plan, practice, or rule for worship we simply wouldn’t make time for it. But I had no idea what it should look like.

So one day I asked a friend that did something similar, looked up a few things online, remembered a quote from a book, then wrote out a short outline of what I thought it might look like to lead our family through worship after dinner. My wife helped me think through what’s most appropriate for our children’s age levels since she’s a trained educator and spends more time around them.

I knew intellectually that building family worship into our lives would be valuable, but I grossly underestimated the impact it would have on our family and others. In the short time since we instituted an almost daily worship time we’ve seen God work in numerous ways, such as:

  • Our children memorizing large passages of Scripture (2-4 year old’s can memorize much more than you think, and so can you)
  • Allowing us to worship with friends, family, and neighbors (if you’re at our house at 7:00 p.m., you join us for family worship time; we’ve had grandparents, neighbor’s kids, our house guests, and others join us on different occasions)
  • Creating space for theological conversations…with preschoolers (which some of you know is actually very deep and rewarding)
  • Cultivating a rhythm that’s focused on God (too much of our lives revolves around what we want to do; stopping to give worship and honor to God most nights centers and grounds my family in what it means to follow Jesus)

After working with my wife and refining our family worship time, here’s a simple template of what you can do for family worship with preschoolers.

(Please note: this is meant to be descriptive of our family worship time with our preschool age children. It is not prescriptive in any way, but hopefully will give you a window into what this looks like if you’re not familiar with it. We’ve had children as old a ten go through this and they’ve enjoyed it, though it’s meant for children up to age 6-7.)

A simple template for family worship with preschoolers

1. Open in prayer

We usually start family worship time right at 7:00 p.m. because families thrive on routine and this seems to be the best time for our family since it’s after dinner and right before baths and bed. We gather the family and whoever else is there into a living room where my wife and I sit in a rocking chair (we alternate for different parts of the worship time) and the children sit on the floor in front of us.

I sit down in the rocking chair first, and I open us with a simple prayer that usually goes something like this: “Father, thank you for this time of worship where we get to focus our hearts and minds and attention on you, which is what worship is all about. We pray that we bring you honor and glory through this time, and pray that you help us to have self-control throughout it.” (These are still preschooolers after all, so self-control is usually needed in gracious quantities!)

2. Recite memory verses and catechism questions and answers

After we open in prayer, mom usually takes over and leads the kids through their memory verses and catechism question and answer. This works for our family because my children are currently homeschooled and they work on these verses earlier in the day with their mother (that, and I can’t ever get all the hand motions down).

We always have two memory verses and one question and answer going. Since each child has a memory verse assigned for the month in their children’s ministry classes, we do that one (currently they’re the same verses since my children are two years apart and the youngest in under 1). This one is shorter, most often just one verse or part of one verse.

We supplement this with a longer passage that’s foundational, such as Isaiah 9 when we get close to Christmas, or the 10 Commandments, or being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry from James 1. My wife did a fantastic job picking these then formatting them for us to use throughout the year. You can download them here if you’re interested.

Once my wife leads us through these verses, we then do one question and answer from the New City Catechism. It’s a modern compilation of older catechisms, but it’s particularly helpful to use with children because each question and answer is accompanied with a shorter version for little learners. Mom simply asks the question, then has the children repeat the answer.

3. Read a Bible story

Now it’s back to dad and I take my place in the rocking chair to read through a Bible story. Last year we read through a Beginner’s Bible that was mine when I was a child. This year we’ve been going through The Jesus Storybook Bible, which is amazing. The stories are a little on the long side for preschoolers, but if you read it with enough energy and excitement (and shouldn’t we?) then it’s relatively easy to keep them engaged. We read one story per night.

After I read through it, we go back and check for understanding and comprehension. We’ll ask simple questions like, “Who was this story about? And what did he/she/they do? What do you think that tells us about God?”

Then we’ll let them ask questions, which is always the interesting part. The day I’m writing this, for instance, we had four extra children joining us, three of which are older than my children. When reciting the 10 Commandments as the catechism answer, one of the young girls was keen to know what adultery was. “Let’s ask your mom and dad about that one when you get home. But be sure to tell them you heard that when we were going through the ten commandments!” Another child wanted to know what God created the world out of (we were reading through Genesis 1-2). And another wanted to know why God created the world when He did and not at some other time. Those are good questions! Had we not been in that time of worship they never would have come up.

4. Sing some songs

At this point, we’re usually no more than 10 minutes into the worship time, but if you know preschoolers then you know their attention is starting to run thin. So we stop and sing some songs to Jesus. We keep a basket full of instruments in the room (tiny guitars, xylophone, tambourines, etc.) and allow the kids to choose one to “play” as we sing along. If there are more than about five kids present (or if our children are struggling with self-control that day) we’ll sing without instruments.

So far we’ve introduced a mix of preschool church songs such as “Father Abraham” and “The B-I-B-L-E,” and more classic refrains like “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Joy to the World” (leading up to Christmas). This is one area where we have some learning to do. We like to keep it fun, but also to choose songs which inform the kids theologically.

5. Record what you’re thankful for

After we make a joyful noise to the Lord (and I mean that literally), we all sit back down and I lead the family through a time where we simply remember something we’re thankful for from that day, and I write down the answers on a note card. We’re trying to build thankfulness into the culture of our family, and also to show the children all the ways in which God blesses our family. We call these our “thankful’s.”

Examples of what the kids say are too personal to share, but suffice it to say this is where you’ll hear some of the most sweet, joyous, precious, and moving things to come out your children’s lips. The profundity of children’s prayers can at times be overwhelming, and I’m constantly challenged by their vulnerability and trust.

6. Close in prayer

After we record our thankful’s, we all pray to close. Usually my wife starts, my oldest two will take turns, and then I’ll close us. The idea is that they’re specifically thanking God for their thankful’s, and anything else they want to pray about. When I close, I’ll usually reiterate what we’re thankful for, thank God for the time of worship and tell Him that we hope we brought Him honor and glory through our worship, and then add anything that might be pertinent that day (this can be anything ranging from a sick family member to help with a specific family expectation the children struggled to meet).

7. Store the “thankful’s”

This part is really cool. After we close in prayer, we rotate letting one of the children put the “thankful’s” in the “thankful bin,” which is just a bucket from IKEA. Each night we do family worship time, we drop the thankful’s in that bin so we look back on them one day. I imagine looking through them as a weepy mess when my kids go off to college or get married. But what a precious time capsule of the way God blesses us over the years! Some days the kids are thankful for cheese, but other days for their new friends or spending time with mommy. As I reflect on what’s written on some of those cards, I’m realizing that they’re one of the few priceless possessions we have.

And that’s it. That took longer to explain than it does to do it. The whole process usually takes us about 15 minutes. It can be hard to get past the inertia at first, but once you do your kids will be reminding you when you forget it.

We were made to worship. And we will do it in our churches as long as we can, but we should also be doing it in our homes as often as we can.