Sermons to Stories

There is great beauty in storytelling. Carol Pipes, director of corporate communications at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee, recently said in a podcast interview, “Stories are the best vehicle for communicating important messages. Tell stories wherever you can. Testimony is the currency of transformation.”

Ever since I began as a full-time copywriter almost a year ago, I have gone from mainly writing sermons and small curriculum (which I still enjoy writing) to writing stories and telling people’s stories. In this process, I have learned so much about communication and how to effectively capture an audience’s attention. This is the very reason movies and plays are so inviting. For some, a well-written book does the same. If done well, these outlets grab your attention and leave you wanting more; they make you feel a part of the experience. In short, stories are told, and meaning is held.

While sermons and stories may have different desired outcomes, I understand they are more closely connected than I had ever realized. If I were to preach a sermon tomorrow, my delivery would be quite different than if you heard me two years ago. I would do my research, theological framework, and then find the best way to communicate truth. I would move away from an outdated formal style of preaching and engage with the audience. To do this, I would find a biblical narrative and real-life examples to connect you to the heart of what God wants his people to know. Favorite singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson once said, “If you want a child to know the truth, tell them the truth. If you want a child to love the truth, them a story.”

Why does a story enthrall people? Because there is both beauty and depth. Good storytelling allows for the creative mind to flow, character development to unfold, and captivation to take place. Jesus was an authoritative, master storyteller. So much so that His audience, who was still trying to make their minds up on who He was, remained astounded by His gift (Matthew 7:28-29).

Stories allow for your mind to run endlessly and to draw conclusions based on what you have just read, seen, or heard. As one pastor friend of mine puts it, “Words create worlds.” When captivated by a great story we typically are moved to action. These actions have the potential to better our communities, churches, and cities, for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom.

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Advice to the Next Generation

I’ve spent more than a decade of my life investing in the next generation. While I’m no longer in full-time student ministry, investing in the next generation and the generations to come makes my heart beat a little bit faster. We must invest in the next generation because they need to make a Kingdom impact now. I still love being around students and their families, hearing their stories, and sharing wisdom when appropriate. If I were standing in front of a group of middle and high school students, saved or lost, the following is what I would tell them.

Walk in Truth. Your life is guided by the truths you deem to be exact—it drives why you do what you do. However, would it be comforting knowing that circumstances or the changing times don’t have to dictate the way you live? Live in the comfort that you don’t create truth; Truth was established a long time ago. Furthermore, you are part of a greater mission and Kingdom that can guide your steps. It is impossible to walk in this Truth if you don’t know the Creator of Truth. Make it your life’s ambition to know Truth, embrace Truth, grow in Truth. Not walking in the Truth will allow the Enemy to steal your joy. Also, the world’s idea of success will drive you. You will end up longing for more of something that will never satisfy. Walking in Truth will often not be the favored route; yet, it will always be the best one.

“This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16a, NIV)

The heart is deceitful. Our natural bent is towards our sinful nature. When we wake up in the morning, our daily battle between spirit and flesh begins. Following our heart leads us down a road that begins and ends with ourselves. The danger therein is our heart—as tender as it may seem—will lead us no further than our wisdom or feelings can take us. What if our heart is wrong…what then? We don’t know what is best for us. Our natural bent is what led to the world we now occupy. What captivates our heart will define the man or woman we will become. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV)

Be careful who you surround yourself with in life. We were created for relationships. From the beginning of humanity, we see a man surrounded by the perfection with all that had been created, yet something was missing—a companion, the woman. Whether we consider ourselves introverts or extroverts, we were all built for community. What community do we allow to influence our lives? We will become who we are around. Include people in your circle of influence who ask you hard questions, love you no matter what, and always have your best interest in mind. Have people in your life who tell you what you need to hear, even if it is not what you want to hear. Allow others to build into you; and you, in return, build into others. Ultimately, make sure you have people in your life who cause you to pursue the One who knows you best—the One who created you.

“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” (Proverbs 1:20, NIV)

Don’t settle for good; go for the best. We live in a society that settles for just good enough. This idea of “barely getting by” leads to living a life of complacency and never going the extra mile. When we settle for good enough, we rarely give our best. And when we don’t give our best, can we look at the person in the mirror and be pleased? The result is we aren’t living in the fullness of which we were created to live. Giving our best means, we show up before we are supposed to and stay later than we are supposed to, all for the betterment of the higher objective and mission. We should give our best to the One who gave His best for us. Why settle for good enough when best is achievable?

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24, NIV)

Serve, expecting nothing in return. Our attitude and actions toward others reveal our hearts. If we serve to be recognized, we aren’t helping. Instead, we are looking for self-gratification through the lens of good works. Serve others even if they can never serve you back. Love your neighbor as yourself, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is the best thing to do. Serve the least of these and serve the greatest of these. You won’t change the world through teaching and talking; you will change the world through loving and showing. After you show love, then your words will be heard. Serve because giving is way more rewarding than receiving. Serve because the One who fashioned you in your mother’s womb came to serve you.

“Not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:4, NIV)

Gauging Where People Are Spiritually

When your burden to reach the lost becomes deeper, your passion to reach the lost will become greater. I am convinced that people do not share the Gospel on a frequent basis because they simply do not have a burden for where others will spend eternity. Christians all over the world have a direct mandate from Scripture, said by Jesus Himself, to “Go make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19-20)  As simplistic as this sounds, depending on the context and the realistic hardships in that context, this may be at best, difficult. It takes courage to talk about our faith but what we will realize is, more people than not, are open to a conversation if we will simply open our mouth.

So how should the conversation begin? How do I know where to even start? First, I would not begin with the classic line “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” My personal approach is much more relational. Get to know the person, talk about common interests, family, etc. What this does is break down preconceived “religious” barriers. In other words you do not want to come across as a “Bible thumper.” Men, if the co-worker, neighbor, is a lady be sure and involve your wife or connect her with a female small group leader from your church so they can connect. Ladies, the same for you. Second, we must realize that only the Holy Spirit truly knows where one is at. We cannot save and we must not act like we are God, knowing all and being all. We are as human as the person we are in conversation with.

So… to the best of my ability, how do I determine if someone understands the Gospel and is a Christ follower? Asking the following questions can help you in gauging where they are at and help them in taking next steps. If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, I encourage you to take these questions and find a Christian you trust and discuss them. Eternity is a big deal.

God: If someone with very little exposure to the local church and the Bible asked you, “Who is God and how do you know He is real…” how would you answer them? Here we have to determine what one thinks about God, whether it is accurate or not. This will help us in determining where their foundation lies.

Sin: What does it mean to commit a sin? What has sin done to our relationship with God? No doubt sin can be a hard thing to talk about. The goal here is not to unveil all of one’s deepest and darkest secrets but, sin is necessary in understanding our need for a Savior. Those who don’t view sin as a big deal will not view the need for a Savior as a big deal. 

Jesus: If someone with very little exposure to the local church and the Bible asked you, “Who is Jesus…” how would you answer them? Why did God send Jesus to us? Jesus is absolutely crucial in the salvation conversation. Understanding Jesus had to come in order for things to be made right, cannot be overlooked or missed. God, the Father, Jesus, the Son, and the Holy Spirit DO NOT operate independently.

Salvation: In your understanding, how does one accept Jesus as their personal LORD and Savior? Has there ever been a time you asked Jesus to be your LORD and Savior? Tell me about that time. Where were you? How old were you? Who was involved in the conversation? Is this a one time decision or can this be done many times? This is where we get to the when, where, who and how. What you are looking for is a time in which a real conversation with a real person occurred. Within this we must determine that the Gospel was clearly and biblically explained, understood and accepted.

Baptism: What is the purpose of baptism? Why should one be baptized? What can baptism not do for you? Baptism is an outward symbol of the work Christ has already accomplished on the inside. Baptism does not have the power to save. A new believer should joyously want to embrace this step with their local faith family.

Spiritual Growth: What is God teaching you right now in your walk with Him? What are you reading in the Word of God right now? This is needed further evidence that Christ is working. Salvation and baptism are not the finish line, it is the beginning.

Click HERE to download the Gauging Where People Are Spiritually tool to help you when you are witnessing or ministering to someone. It can also be found in the Ministry Resources section of the blog.

Three Consistent “Asks” of Kids and Students

There are a lot of “asks” in life. As married adults, our spouses will ask for us to run errands, help fix something, or our opinion on different matters. Kids and teenagers are often asked to do homework, to help pick up siblings, help with yard work, to sit still and pay attention or potentially many other things. At times, it seems whether we are 8 years old or 88 years old that people are always asking something of us. Quite frankly it can get draining even if our true hearts desire is to serve and submit well.

With this framework in mind, I’m very careful how often and what I ask of my wife, my family and the volunteer leaders I serve alongside. I don’ want my reputation to be one of every time someone sees my name on their phone or sees me coming down the hall, they want to hit the decline button or walk the other direction because they know I need them to do something. As leaders, we always need help. People know this, it is no secret, especially in the local church setting. Volunteers want to feel valued and like they are making a difference. Therefore, it is important that even before we ask, they know we value them and love them no matter what. After all, that should be why we are asking them to help with something in the first place.

I spend most my days and weeks working with kids and students and with those that work with or parent kids and students. When it comes to asking of kids and students, I’m also very careful how often I do this and in the manner in which I do this. Especially students can often feel like you are just using them because they are gifted and talented in a certain area or because they are simply available.

There are three things I’m fairly consistent in asking kids and students to bring with them to church every week (outside of themselves, of course).

Their Bible. This may seem like a no brainer or it may even seem as if we are only desiring the “committed Christian” to show up. However, in the ministries I lead I want it to be no secret we are a people of the Bible. It is the most important book you can ever engage with. Period. If we can get a Bible in every kids and students hands that they can read and understand and instill in them and their parents the importance of daily Bible reading/engagement, then we are helping lay a crucial foundation in their life. It is impossible to disciple a person without Bible engagement. Therefore, I often say, “Be sure and bring your Bible with you. If you don’t have one or one that is easy for you to understand, come see me or one of the leaders and we will be sure and get you one as soon as possible.” 

A friend. The local church should always be a safe, fun and exciting place for kids and students to bring their friends. The big picture is we want to instill into kids and students  the importance of building healthy relationships with others. Then they/we have an opportunity to share the Gospel with others. Also, especially in the next generation, they want to be where their friends are. We don’t want to be event-driven, but we do want create environments that foster community. Therefore, I will often say or social media things like, “See you Wednesday at 6pm with a friend!” Also while promoting an event I will say something like, “This is an incredible thing to bring friends to that may not go to church or are looking for a new church.”

A willingness to learn and grow. I realize this is not a person or object but it is still very important. We want kids and students to know, in a very age-appropriate way, that we are a ministry and we desire for them to grow spiritually and learn all they can about God, His plan of redemption, the Church, how to live on mission and many other things about the Christian life. This is the age they are most eager to learn so we must capitalize on that. Therefore, I will often say something like, “Be ready to learn something very exciting this coming Sunday” or I will give them a well crafted, short, catchy phrase and then say, “You want to find out what this means… we will see you at church tonight!” This helps create a little bit of curiosity and an eagerness to learn more.

We don’t want to “ask” just for the sake of asking or sounding like a broken record. We have intentional asks because we care about the next generation and their walk with Jesus.

 

3 Things to Remember When Teaching Kids the Bible

One of my absolute favorite things I get to do every week is teach kids the Bible. For some, a room full of elementary kids bouncing off the walls, desiring to play tag with every free minute all while downing a sprinkles-filled donut, might not sound so awesome. While at moments it can drive you nuts, another way to look at it is all the potential that lies in the room. Here is the truth: these kids will not stay kids forever. They will continue to grow up. They are growing up in a world that does not love Jesus and could care less about pursuing Jesus. Parents, therefore, what you teach them matters. Kids ministry leaders, what you do every Sunday and Wednesday matters. It matters for eternity. You can’t save your child or anyone else’s child for that matter but what you can do is teach. You can take a pie-in-the-face, laugh with kids, and then share the Gospel with them. You can set a Godly example. You can equip and release.

Recently, I stepped into more of role in our church’s kids worship environment. It has grown me as a teacher of God’s Word and has shown me things I never saw before. And, quite frankly, I love it. There is simply something incredible about seeing a kid have a “lightbulb” moment and get it for the first time.

While being a part of kids worship I’m learning more and more about the ways kids learn and intake information. If you are a parent of a child, a kids ministry leader, a life-long VBS volunteer, a chaperon for events, or whatever role you find yourself in ministering to kids, I would like to offer you three tips when teaching kids the Bible. I’m in no way an expert in this area but I have found these helpful.

Break it down, don’t water it down. It is huge we understand the difference in these two things. When you break it down you desire to teach for impact. When you water it down you are simply “getting by.” By breaking it down you understand that you have influence in a kid’s life and you desire them to know Jesus. Typically, kids has a greater capacity than we give them credit for. They CAN understand the Gospel and Biblical truths. They CAN understand sin. They CAN understand why Jesus had to come to die for our sins. When we choose to water it down, we live under the false pretense that “kids can’t handle this yet.” As a result, we are doing kids a major disservice. This way of thinking usually comes from an immature Christian that simply does not want to put the time or preparation in. No doubt teaching kids is a difficult task. They are restless, up and down, and their favorite word is usually “why.” However, what we miss when we water it down instead of breaking it down, is the incredible opportunity to speak Gospel truth into the life of a kid at the most receptive time of their life.

Make it stick, so it will click. How you teach, what you teach matters. Hardly a time goes by that I don’t use objects, visual aids, or some form of media, when I’m teaching kids the Bible. These are all great tools in breaking it down to help kids understand what we are trying to communicate to them. When kids understand truth it gives them the opportunity to embrace truth and then apply that truth to the people around them. So work hard at making it memorable so they will have “lightbulb” moments. It is important to remember that you won’t hit a “home-run” every time. That is to be expected and okay. Change your methods up every once in a while, spend time with a parent or a ministry leader further down the road than you and ask what worked for them. All these things can help you think of ways to creatively teach kids the Bible.

Explain the Gospel clearly and often. Never, ever lost sight of this. While I’m all for exciting environments, they should NEVER replace or trump the Gospel message. Again, teach in a very age-appropriate way but never lose sight of the bottom line of why you are teaching in the first place- to introduce kids to Jesus. Don’t lose Jesus in the production. Ask a kid how they became a Christian, and they will inevitably tell you about a time that a caring adult, whether it be mom and dad, a Sunday school teacher, a coach, or a kids pastor/ministry leader, took the time to invest into them and tell them about the greatest hope they can ever have. This is a beautiful picture of the Church being the Church.

Bottom lineCreatively break down the Gospel message so kids clearly understand it and as a result have the chance to connect to it.

Here are three questions to consider as you are teaching kids the Bible:

  1. What is the one thing I want them to remember from our time together in God’s Word? (In other words, what is your bottom line?)
  2. How can I best teach this to them in a fun, age-appropriate way?
  3. No matter what I’m teaching them, how can I tie it back to the Gospel and what Jesus has done for us?

3 Things Christ Following Parents Need to Constantly Remind Their Kids

My wife and I have been parents for a little over three years now. We have a three 1/2-year-old daughter and a four-month-old baby boy. No, we are not getting sleep at night, and yes, we still love being mommy and daddy. Just the other night I was holding our four-month-old, Caleb, as he had fallen asleep in my arms. I began to look at him, gently rub his head and pray for him. In the background I could hear our three 1/2-year-old daughter running around, avoiding brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed. She is a constant reminder of what energy and laughter are. I thought about the current state of the world and what lies ahead. I thought about the solar eclipse that occurred this past Monday and what an incredible display of the awesomeness of God it was. I thanked God for who He is and how He graciously continues to reveal Himself to us. I thanked God that no matter how crazy our world gets, He is still on His throne.

As I was looking at Caleb, I began to have a thought I have had many times before, “What do I want our kids to learn and grasp?” As a Christ-following parent, if I could remind them of a few things over and over, what would those things be? These three things came to mind…

God loves you more than you will ever know. Yes, it is crazy important for our kids to know how much we as parents love them. We are very intentional to continually be affirming and loving with Madelyn and Caleb, even in the tough moments. Even in their very young minds, we want to instill in them that the greatest love they will ever know is the love of God. As much as mom and dad love them, God loves them more. While being raised in a Christian home, having a dad who is a pastor, and being taught the Bible at church and home, a relationship with God is personal. We desire for our kids to know and embrace how much God loves them personally. He loves them so much that He sent His one and only Son to die for their sins so they can have a right relationship with Him.

This world is broken. Just yesterday morning, while working from a local coffee shop, I had a conversation with someone about brokenness in their family. Divorce amid an affair had broken a more than 20-year marriage within their family. As I talked with this person, the conversation led to how an eight old girl had been affected by the situation. In one word, brokenness. An 8-year-old sees this, and an 88-year-old considers this. We live in a broken world as a result of sin. We need to continually remind our kids that the brokenness they see is NOT the way God intended the world to be. He still is crazy in love with us even when we make decisions that do not bring Him glory. We must instill in our kids that yes, brokenness will always exist on this side of eternity but, they can choose to pursue Jesus.

Jesus is always better. Our kids will face many temptations and decisions along the way. When it comes to choosing the God-honoring path or the worldly path, may we always instill in our kids that Jesus is simply better. He still is. The world offers quick, temporary “happiness” and Jesus offers eternal joy. There is a big difference between these two things. From the young child that yells, “But Mommy, I want it now!” to the teenager that keeps asking, “But why…?!” we need to continually keep Hebrews 12:1-2 on the hearts and minds of our kids. Why? Because Jesus is better, in every single circumstance that may arise.

From one Christ-following parent to another one that is reading this right now, I know it is hard. We in no way have this parenting thing figured out. There are parents that we lean on and ask for Godly advice all the time. We are praying for you as you raise kids in a world that does not love and pursue Jesus. We pray the Gospel of Jesus Christ will so grip your kid’s hearts and minds that they will passionately live for Jesus and His Kingdom. We are continually praying this for our kids.

Following Jesus.

We live in a world that embraces superficial things, is always looking for whatever is “new and next,” and will ultimately follow things that are only important to them. The moral compass of what is right and wrong is ever-changing, and it seems that every time we turn on the TV something is going wrong. In the middle of this, we do see things that excite us and good things. Maybe it is our kids achieving a goal they have worked hard on, our team excels and is in the state playoffs, we get a promotion at work, we find out that “the news” at the doctor’s office is not as bad as it could have been.

In the middle of all these ups and downs is the prominent priority that is on every Christ followers heart, following Jesus. As a pastor, I get asked all the time, “How do I know if I’m truly following Jesus?” For the most part, at the bottom of this, is a sincere heart that desires to make the name of Jesus famous. While it may not be announced from a stage with a microphone, it seems that many Christ followers, at the same time, feel as if they are consistently wondering what God thinks about them. “Man, I messed up this week” or “Wow, that didn’t go as I had hoped, how did that go so wrong” fills our minds. This leads us to wonder if our commitment to Jesus is genuine. While the enemy is masterful at “getting in our head” and lying to us to take eyes off of Jesus, I believe there are at least four indications that we can tangibly see that affirm we did have a genuine relationship with Jesus, the Savior.

The pursuit of God in His Word. A follower of Jesus Christ is simply this: A person who admits they are a sinner, in need of saving. They believe in their heart that Jesus can forgive them of their sins and have confessed Jesus to be the LORD and Savior of their life (Romans 10:9). It is not a speech given; it is a life lived. After making this life-changing commitment to Jesus, the pursuit of God in and through His Word is the desire of the heart. Every day we wake up and crave to be washed in the Word, wanting to know Jesus more, and leaning into His promises. It is impossible to follow Jesus apart from His Word. It cannot be done. If you claim to follow Jesus then you should be able to comfortably answer these two questions, “What are you reading in God’s Word right now?” and “What is God teaching you as you read His Word?”

The people around us. The people that we allow to influence our lives and the people we in return influence is an excellent indicator if you are following Jesus. If you claim to follow Jesus, then you should be able to comfortably give exact times, groups, and locations in which you are in biblical community. Where is your local church membership? Do you have a small group? How are you serving the body of Christ? This whole idea that “My relationship with Jesus is private” is not biblical. When you read the book of Acts, you see the early church on fire for Jesus, and you see them accomplishing it together (Acts 2:42-47). While a relationship with Jesus is a personal, individual decision, the Christian life is not a solo act. A Jesus follower has people praying for and encouraging them while they are doing the same thing for others. They also have people in their life they are trying to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our perception of life and eternity. A faithful follower of Jesus has an eternal mindset on all things. When Jesus changes a heart and life, how we deal we conflict, how we react to situations, and how we view what is most important all changes. We do not merely live for the here and now. A Christ-follower knows that eternity is at stake. They do not go to work to make money. While bills must be paid, we go to work and view it as a mission field. A Jesus following high school football player is not merely on the team to break records and get a scholarship. He considers his team as a mission field. A Christ follower wakes up with this on their mind, “Jesus, how can I love and pursue you more today than I did yesterday?”

How we pray. The more we follow Jesus, the more we will be conformed to His ways and thoughts. I love to hear a genuine, heartfelt, prayer of a faithful saint. In this, you will listen to struggles, victories, and a heart for the nations. A loyal Christ follower rarely prays for something that will only benefit themselves. A key question to consider here is, “Do I tend to pray more selfishly or sacrificially?” Your prayers and your “Christmas wish list” should not sound the same. While it is appropriate and encouraged to pray for your walk with Jesus and things on your heart, a Christ follower is always others-focused.

John 15 is an incredible chapter in the Bible. It has great words of wisdom from Jesus about abiding in Him. John 15 shows us that if we are genuinely connected to the True Vine, others will be able to see it. Can others see this in you?

John 15:8 (CSB), “My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”

Click HERE to download the Following Jesus Worksheet which will practically help you evaluate if you have a genuine walk with Jesus.