The gospel and baseball: simple yet complex

While playing baseball with my four year old son in my gently sloping front yard the other day, I told him, “You pulled that ball foul.” Just a week or two earlier I tried to teach him another ball he hit was actually fair, but he had just hit it opposite field (that took a lot of explaining!). I have begun to realize that baseball, when you break it down, is far deeper than I originally thought. Not just with rules, but with concepts, with terms. Now football does have a number of different plays and formations, but baseball might just be as deep when it comes to terms, situations, and scenarios.

Yet at some level, the game isn’t too complicated to watch. And play. If the batter hits the ball, the fielder tries to catch the ball in the air, or tag him/ base before he gets there. My four year old is beginning to grasp this.

Such is the case with the gospel. It is simple enough that a thief on the cross can believe that Jesus will save him (Luke 23:42). And it is also simple enough that a young child can get a hold of it and come to Jesus (Matt 19:14); we can only assume that an adult with the mental capability of a child can “get it” as well. As a result, let us not forget to praise God for the simplicity of the gospel. It’s beautifully simple.

But its also beautifully deep. Like the game of baseball. Like the shipwreck or reef too deep to explore by snorkeling. It is both more simple than we think and deeper than we think. There are depths to plumb.

So what’s the point of this comparison?

1.) Praise God for its simplicity. When you doubt, don’t forget the simplicity of it. Jesus came, died, rose again, appeared, saved us and will be coming back to finish what he started.

2.) Praise God for its depth and never stop learning. If the thief on the cross had lived, he probably would have been the first in line to go to a bible study, learn some theology, familiarize himself with biblical terms that add depth in understand all that Jesus has accomplished. After all, Jesus does way more than just save us from hell. If the thief had lived, I imagine he’d read a bit, or at least have someone read to him. Imagine those little children that Jesus said, “Come to me.” When they grew up, don’t you think they would have wanted to go deeper, read, study and ask more questions? Now they wouldn’t, or shouldn’t lose that child-like faith, and that should always temper their study with humility and awe. But shouldn’t deeper study and reflection only increase that awe and child-like faith? After all, we can learn more reasons to trust him.

3.) Don’t assume everyone is at same level. When you talk to young believers, or unbelievers, it is necessary to recognize that your terms might be unrecognizable. Can you imagine a coach saying to my four year old, “Connar, you pulled that ball foul, choke up, shorten your swing, go with the pitch, hit behind the runner. Never assume the gospel. Instead start with and celebrate its simplicity before you expound on its depth and application in life.

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Reflections on David Platt’s sermon to the youth

As I mentioned earlier, this past week was Redeemer’s Missions Week. We do these things yearly to really emphasize world missions. Without something yearly to remind us to really hone in our thinking, praying, giving, going, we can easily forget about people that we’ll never see (but hope to one day in heaven).
So for our last act of the Missions Week, one of my incredibly helpful youth teachers requested we show the recent David Platt Sermon delivered at Together for the Gospel (T4G) for youth group. More often than not, I try to give folks the freedom to bring options, run them by me, and then let them run with those ideas. So we watched what has been deemed as the best sermon ever preached on missions over a delectable spaghetti dinner.
Here are my reflections
1.) I was wrong. I thought it would be best to break up the video into 2 sessions. An hour long sermon can be difficult for a middle schooler. Last year they listened to a half hour audio of a Piper lecture and it did not go well! The Sr High’s did go well on the other hand. Plus, if we broke it up, I figured we’d have more time for discussion. However, I yielded to the desires of the one who wanted to show the video and am glad I did. Leadership sometimes involves yielding. It also involves admitting you were wrong! I even told the kids I didn’t think they had it in them, but that someone else did!
2.) Teaching up. I always tend to “teach up.” Our Jr High use Sr High material for Sunday School and it has gone well. Our Sr High use an adult study from Tim Keller and have been doing this type of stuff for a while. When we had to break up our Sunday School classes from the normal break-up (PreK-K, 1st-2nd, 3rd-4th, etc…), we sent the 2nd graders up and the Pre-K have been working with the 1st-2nd grade material. I prefer to teach up. I knew that the Sr High’s would be OK with the video, but my concern was the middle school kids, particularly the younger middle school kids. But in the end, “teaching up,” was the right way to go.
3.) In “teaching up” one must still remember the younger ones instead of assuming everyone “gets it.” This sermon is probably the best sermon on missions I’ve seen, but we need to remember that it was delivered to pastors at a pastor’s conference (of course many others go who aren’t pastors, but those who go have more knowledge than most others in the church). As a result, David Platt does not define all of his terms (and he shouldn’t have to). It is impossible to think like a middle schooler if you are not one. But instead of assuming that all kids knew such terms, I made sure to get up and ask the kids if they did. I’m glad I did, because several didn’t know what the word “Sovereignty” meant; and that was a word used in his main point! So I let the Sr High’s define “sovereignty” for the others, as well as “people groups.” Those were two huge points in the sermon, and several folks didn’t know what they meant. When you “teach up,” you still have to take pains and ask questions to make sure kids are getting it. But in the end, you end up letting the older kids assist in teaching the younger kids. So cool to see.
4.) Power of stories. While David Platt didn’t illustrate heavily, he did use several stories and anecdotes that I could tell ALL of the kids got. It is beautiful to see a middle school lad get excited about a story where a pastor realizes that dying is gain; because that pastor realized it, so did his persecutors. They would have been worse off killing him, so they let that joker live! That’s priceless. All the kids got a kick out of that. I think these stories will stick, even if some of the main points or terms may not.
After the brief discussion and clarification time, we sent them on their way. It was a great night and encouraging to expose these kids to the radical call of the gospel to lose our lives for Jesus glory. Whether they go overseas or minister here at home, we have to teach our kids to say no to the suburban American comfortable lifestyle and to find the joy in following Jesus wherever we are.
If you haven’t seen the video, check it out here or the audio here.

This material is not very Christ-centered…Now what?

It is a good to thing to stumble upon material that is gospel centered. What I mean by that is that Jesus’ finished work (Life, Death, Resurrection) is our means and motivation to follow Him. Instead of what I call a “Nike message” (just do it), good material will point to the truth that Jesus has already done it FOR us and now is going to start doing it IN and THROUGH us. That’s much different than a “Nike message.” Such messages lead to pride (I did it) or despair (I can’t do it). Well trained teachers saturated with the gospel thinking will tend to pick up on “Nike” material as they can smell moralism and legalism a mile away. 
However what should a teacher do when he/she comes upon such material or a small section in your teaching materials that doesn’t appear to be gospel centered?
1.) First of all, we need to realize that NO material comes to us from Mt Sinai, with the exception of the Torah (first five books of bible) literally speaking and the rest of the scriptures spiritually speaking (the rest is also inspired by God). As a result this is the only material where the problem is never with the material but with the teacher. But when you teach the books of the bible, you still have to interpret and apply the passage within the overall story of the bible. For instance, the bible clearly gives commands. But we interpret those commands with an understanding that Jesus has fulfilled those on our behalf. Now he empowers us to live those commands out. You can’t skip the first part. Sally Lloyd-Jones does this so well in her Jesus Story Book bible. She writes more about it here, explaining why children need to understand the bible is not ABOUT them, but Jesus.
2.) When you look for Christ-centered application within the passage, you can usually find it implicitly if you look at the larger context. When Paul writes “practice these things,” he also says the “God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:9).” Jesus has established that peace and we need to realize this, particularly when we fail to “practice these things.” That’s very clear gospel centered application. Other times, you’ll just have to look at the overall book, or overall story of the bible to help frame your application. 
3.) When you come upon material that is in general very Christ-centered, don’t hold it to a standard higher than you hold the bible. What I mean is that not every command in the bible reads, “Because Christ has done this, then….” (though many in essence do say something like that). And the bible doesn’t have to say that for EVERY command. We know the story of the bible and why Jesus had to come and die; if we could do the commands without his power, motivation, forgiveness, He wouldn’t have needed to die! So it’s important to not over-scrutinize generally Christ-centered material. We shouldn’t put on it an expectation that even the bible does not meet.
4.) The bible does instruct us to DO. It really does (James 1:22). Of course the way to change what we do is change what we believe-go back to the gospel and really start believing more than we have. But if we do believe, we will DO. The goal of bible study is not simply to learn what Jesus did, but how He’s working that out in you today. Sometimes we (I don’t think it’s just me!) who love gospel centered teaching can forget to tell others the implications of our belief. For instance if our conversation is to be seasoned with salt, full of grace-and I trust that I’m now only judged by Jesus’ speech (which was perfect)-I need to recognize the implications of that truth when I hang out with my friends, classmates, neighbors, etc….
5.) Sometimes specific lessons within generally gospel centered material will seem a bit more legalistic (making God like you more by what you do) or Pharisaical (making up stuff to do to make God like you more). In this case you the teacher can decide how much of the material that you need to use. I always say, unless its the bible, you can Take it, Toss it, or Tweak it. More often than not, the teacher can simply use statements like the following:
  • How has Jesus fulfilled this perfectly? Consider what Jesus did and how we are now declared righteous for His work.
  •  If this we believe this is true, how WILL our lives really look? What is the implication of our gospel rooted belief?
  • Because Jesus has given his life for us, how can we follow Him more in this area?
  • Because we have been set free from sin’s enslaving power by Jesus, how will we pursue and follow Him as a result of believing the truth in this passage?
  •  We don’t need to fear failure anymore. We will and that’s OK, and Jesus loves us just as much when we do. But let’s figure out how he can imperfectly reflect Him in this area.
You don’t have to use these or similar expressions every time, and shouldn’t demand them from your material. However, if you rarely couch your applications with the underlying gospel truth (what Jesus has done), then folks will begin to hear “just do it.” So keep a few in the back pocket.

Since I have teachers that are gospel centered, I don’t fear material that may have some legalistically formulated applications. When you cherish the gospel truth, you can tweak any material to point them to Jesus work and His work in and through us.

Thoughts from the 2020 conference

This past weekend, several close friends and I drove up to Butler PA to attend the C.E.P. 2020 Conference. The overall ministry projection, desire, and prayer was for the church to make disciples who make disciples. Several speakers specifically described such disciples as Kingdom disciples and further defined them as having 1.) Heart that loves King Jesus 2.) Mind that thinks like King Jesus 3.) Lives of service to others. Basically it was the same vision we already have put in place at Redeemer with the Head, Heart, Hands model.
But what was new was the tangible expectation of producing disciples from our children who would be discipling others. The plan is a 10 year plan. Not a 20 year plan. A 10 year plan. That means that if parents and church partner together, that by age 14, he/she would be ready in some way to make disciples. I’ve always believed that youth will only rise to the level that is expected of them. As a result, I’ve conceptually raised the bar, and begun to practically put in place opportunities for them to serve. But I’m not sure that I’ve practically put structures into place for them to actually disciple others. 
Much of discipleship is informal. Philippians 4:9 shows us both content (what you’ve learned, heard), but also informal (what has been “seen in me.”) This stuff was already on my heart due to a timely text message from a parent the past week, so now the fire to practically put something in place is scorching my back side.
Straight shooter Sue Jakes reminded us of a very simple application of the scriptural truth: children are a blessing. If that is the case, how are we as a covenant community ministering together to our covenant children? Not YOUR kids, but YOUR CHURCH’s kids. I’ve heard several times in my ministry over the years, “I just don’t like kids.” Sue Jakes shared with us a simple response: “Repent.” If children are a blessing, then we can’t just “wash our hands of them.” That children are a blessing is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless truth. That we disciple our covenant children is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless command. 
What that command looks like can be all across the board. Nursery or 2-3 year old church (we start discipling these kids at age 2), children’s church (4-1st grade), Sunday School, youth group. These are formal structures in place for passing on “what we’ve learned/received/heard” but much of discipleship is informal (“seen in me.”) At the conference, I could tell many folks’ answer to discipleship was simply “do Sunday School and do it better.” But the speakers challenged us all with the plethora of informal ministry opportunities to disciple our covenant children. 
To be regularly involved in Sunday School requires some teaching gifts. To be regularly involved in youth ministry requires a certain amount of, well, maybe insanity. But to be involved in some sort of informal relationship with children/youth requires a pulse and a love of Jesus. That’s it.
Do things with them. Even the introverted sound guy, can bring a youth along with him to help set up, troubleshoot, etc… When you pass out bulletins, pass them out with a child. When you greet, don’t just greet with a smile; greet with a kid.
Talk to them. Simple things like getting to know the names of other children/youth in the church. Talk to them. Ask questions about them and their lives. None of this stuff requires you to be “marooned” in a nursery or class room for an hour and half. It involves you simply taking time to look at those children/youth and around you and move towards them. That’s it.
In the end, if you don’t make any effort to somehow involve yourself with our covenant children, you don’t have a problem with kids/youth; you a problem with God. They need you and you need them. I don’t want to see more kids go off to college and not come back to the church. More than that, we want disciples that are salt and light outside the church. Be a disciple and make disciples. It’s for the church. It’s for you.

Application questions: the solution to teaching familiar passages/material

The other day I found myself teaching material that was somewhat familiar to my “pupils.” I had been prepared from previous teaching opportunities on the same material, but had forgotten my “lead sheet” where I had stuff underlined and several prepared questions. 
On a previous occasion, I went through the same material with another individual and simply thought of questions on the fly. These were primarily observation questions (what is there in the passage or material) and some interpretation questions (what is the meaning of the passage or question). It went well and we had some nice discussion.
But on this particular occasion, observation and interpretation questions didn’t seem to stimulate the same kind of conversation. Perhaps they were simply having one of those days where people will just not talk. That happens sometimes no matter how prepared you are. However, I think I know what was going on. The material was familiar with them and so my questions were not as engaging.
What then is a possible solution? Application questions.
No matter how familiar material or a passage is to someone, application questions can really make the difference in not just good discussion, but the ultimate goal in discipleship=application/life change. For instance someone can know that the gospel saves us from sin AND from sin’s enslaving power. I can know that by asking questions that reveal a grasp of the content. However, the goal is to see how well we are REALLY believing that, and what that really looks like when we believe or disbelieve that in our lives. The gospel has to go from our head to our heart to our hands.
Some teaching materials come with great application questions. Some don’t. However, asking these questions prevents or crushes the whole “familiarity breeds contempt” mentality. It keeps familiar material and familiar passages from becoming stale because you are asking questions that no longer stay on the static conceptual level but come down to the dynamic practical level of everyday life. I can lead someone through a passage or book he/she may have studied last year, but life may have completely changed. Life is dynamic and changing. The gospel is not, and so it takes regular thought and discussion to apply that which is constantly true to life which is constantly changing (and to make sure our belief in the gospel isn’t!). As a result, application questions foster discussion that delves deeper into the heart, and opens the door to real life change.
If your teaching material doesn’t have good application questions (and if you know the group well, yours will probably be better), here are some generic application questions I keep in the back pocket and should have broken out during my last meeting time.
1.) If this is true, what will that look like for YOU when YOU’RE  in __________ (school, relationship) family, church, neighborhood, sports) situation?
2.) When do you feel the most struggle to believe this?
3.) What do you believe instead of the gospel when YOU are in ______ situation? What do you believe instead of the gospel when you struggle with ____________ sin (any particular sin)
Hope these help. Remember, material that is familiar does not have to breed contempt. Some things need to be taught and re-taught. And these types of questions will work well for those in a group who may not find the material very familiar. Application questions help “level the playing field” and put everyone on the same plane: broken folks who need Jesus to live out what they know to be true.

And if we’re honest, the gospel is never familiar enough as we need it to be. It is something that must saturate every fiber of our being or else another false gospel (prosperity, works-salvation, suburban/American dream) will begin taking its place and keep us from honoring Jesus in all the particulars of life.

A thinking message or an altar call?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the chapel of a local Christian school. I spoke on one of my favorite passages, Mark 9, explaining that Jesus can do something with our unbelief when we bring it to him. Before the chapel started, the bloke in charge asked me if there would be an “altar call” or if I was planning on “leaving them something to think about?” An altar call or a thinking message…
Who knew those were my two options?
Instead of explaining my take on altar calls, I politely (maybe I’ll get asked back) said, “It will be a ‘thinking message.'”
I won’t go into my thoughts on the 19th century invention of the altar call, as I’ve already done so here. But I do want to explore the question this man asked.
Should a sermon or a talk leave people with something to think about or should it call them to action? I think the answer is probably a qualified “yes.”
1.) Thinking. Of course, leave it to a Presbyterian to affirm the thinking part of a sermon…But people do need to understand what the passage in context really says, what it means, and why believing that passage makes a practical difference in life. Ideally, I want folks leaving a sermon thinking more and more about the passage, how it points us to the gospel, and how our lives will change because we’ve personally embraced that truth. You never want a, “Well now I know all there is to know about that passage and how it relates to Jesus and how I’ve already changed….” If the roots keep getting deeper, the fruit will become that much more evident.
2.) Response. One of my favorite pastors, and former professor Steve Brown, always (I think he still does) concludes his sermons with “you think about that.” He doesn’t mean for you to simply think, but to respond to the gospel. A good sermon always calls for some response. Now perhaps that response is one that no one sees. Perhaps it is a call to awe and wonder at the majesty of God. That is still a legitimate response, and one that is quite necessary when preachers like myself can emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of His transcendence. Now I can call people to come down an aisle and commit to being more in awe of God, or I can preach about His faithful character and say something like, “Now doesn’t this move us to awe?” I choose the latter.
Our sermon passage yesterday was on Psalm 92, which is a thanksgiving psalm. The main application Barret left us with was to make sure we focus on the giver more than the gift. No one may necessarily see that, but if by faith we respond, folks will eventually see a difference. They will never see us become angry if the building isn’t being used exactly as we want it. 
Sometimes the response to a sermon may appear more active. It may mean that after you understand the “why,” you feel the need to respond by seeking forgiveness from someone you have wronged. It might mean that you spend time with your spouse next Friday night. It might mean that as a result of believing the gospel, you consider tithing, or supporting a missionary. It could mean that you become part of a church plant or stay at your existing church.  Both are active responses. You don’t need to “come on down” in order to respond. 
But neither should you simply think about what’s been said and conclude with, “That was a good sermon. I liked it.” 

A good sermon challenges the head, the heart, and the hands. However, the preacher may emphasize a response aimed at one of these areas more than the other.

Figuring out what to study next

When I was in high school, I didn’t have many choices on what classes to take. I liked it. When in college, I had some more flexibility, but much of the guess work was taken out:  take 3 classes, 2 classes, and then 3 classes each tri-mester and I would graduate. 
When it comes to teaching or leading a small group, choosing what to teach next can be difficult. Here are some guidelines that help me think through what to teach next. They are not from Mt. Sinai, nor are they ordered in any sense of primacy. But cumulatively they can be helpful to make sure that you are teaching on a variety of different, relative subjects, moving those under your care towards maturity in Christ (Col 1:28-29).
Some churches have designated key areas, and leaders can choose a book from each key subject area. One of my churches I served at had 10 separate keys that would take place over 3 years. Then you repeat. This method is thoughtful and ensures that you cover a variety of issues-some of which you or your group wouldn’t choose but nevertheless needs to discuss. While this plan makes sense, I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary. That church tried this method, but not for long. Systematically going through topics is grand, but I just don’t think you can cross subject matters off the list and then move on. That’s why I prefer something a little more flexible.
1.) Bible. In college, I remember a bible study that I went to once. They challenged everyone to take seriously, very seriously, what we would be studying for the next semester. Like we could end up studying the wrong bible book. I thought, well, if its the bible, that’s probably good. They didn’t think that, but I still do. I’ve never studied through a book of the bible and as a group discerned, “This really wasn’t relevant. I think we should have studied a Pauline epistle instead of James….” Never. The Good Book Company and Matthias Media has all kinds of great bible study guides.
2.) Have a frame-work. While I don’t think you necessarily need to be locked down into a systematic grid for what to study over the period of 5 years, I still like having a framework. We should have in mind issues and topics to consider for our next study or discussion. If you don’t have any framework in mind, you may tend to skip over some issues you could have ignored. The framework I think through is the Head-Heart-Hands Model. Is there anything that our group would benefit from knowing more about God (Head)? Maybe we need to spend some time on Christology because people don’t understand who Jesus really is (Head)? Are there any Heart issues, like materialism, worship of family, which could be best tackled through a specific book or study? Is it best to continue to lay a gospel foundation, which people may not really grasp (Heart)? Are there any practical (Hands) issues like how to parent, do finances, how to study bible, how to share your faith, how to show mercy, etc…? I tend to reserve the latter two for small group and the former for Christian Ed/Sunday School. If you tend to study practical issues in books, then its probably wise to take a break and simply study the bible, books, or studies particularly plumbing the depths of the gospel. If you’ve never gone theologically deep (Head), but focus primarily on the practical and outreach/mercy (Hands), then it might be wise to balance. A framework can help that.
3.) Freedom: Those who oversee certain ministries have the final say on what gets studied. That’s their “job.” I prefer to give leaders lots of freedom because they are at ground level, hearing what is being discussed. They hear the answers. They know if the group lacks knowledge (Head), the application of the gospel to life (Heart), or if the group knows anything about tithing, showing mercy, reaching out, whether they are serving their church. So as a leader, you just want to have these things in mind. You are a student of your group, as much as they are a student of your teaching, leading, shepherding. 
If you are attentive, you will begin to discern heart issues, growth areas, application blind spots, areas of scripture (all of the aforementioned you may have too!) that you’ll want to keep in mind for the next, as well as the current study material.
Some questions that can helpful to think through are as follows:
a.) What keeps them up at night? What scares them? In other words, what are their idols? Respect, work, love from spouse/family/friends, family? Anything that if taken away, would leave them with no reason to get out of bed.
b.) How well do they know simple truths of the gospel? Are they ready to move deeper (not advance beyond)?
c.) Does any theological question keep coming up? Is there any section of the bible which they seem to deficient or interested in knowing more?
d.) Are they interpreting and applying the bible in a Christ-centered way or simply as instruction manual?
Some things may be more pertinent or pressing to study than others, so that’s why I like to get input from leaders.
4.) Asking: Much of the time you can get what you need to study by thinking ahead of time where you want the group to go, and then tweaking that plan if need be, by your attentiveness to their needs. However, another way to supplement (not replace) is by asking them. It can be helpful to ask if there any issues or sections of the bible which you feel you need to study? This can sometimes be quite helpful. Or you can ask something like this, “Would you be interested in studying a book by so and so?” I did this and it let me know NOT to go through a particular book because they wouldn’t have time to read it. I’m glad I asked and I appreciated their honesty!
However, you also need to be aware that sometimes people will pick something that he/she wants to study but the individual, or the group as a whole might need to study something else. For instance, someone might want to study “end times” or “prophesy” when in reality, he/she doesn’t know his spiritual gifts, or is shacking up with his girlfriend or boyfriend.
5.) Sermon discussion/application: I’ve never done this in a small group bible study, but many churches do. My last church did this off and on in Sunday School, which took place after worship. Many enjoyed and benefited from it. The Mars Hill churches have this as a regular component of their community groups as do a number of other larger churches as well as thriving church plants. The idea here is to focus not primarily on what has been said, but to believe the truth that has been preached, and apply what has been preached. This of course requires that your group is regular in worship and the leader takes notes and asks good application questions.

The most important thing you do as a CD/Small/Community group leader is to shepherd the people in your group. Picking material is part of that shepherding process, but it is only part. Praying for, teaching, following up with, loving on, and pointing them toward Jesus are the bigger parts. Be faithful in those, and then pick the material that you feel is the best (of course have it approved!), and you can’t go wrong.