Archives For Family

Families take an all-in approach to community transformation

Rodriguez Family

In one of their city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the Rodriguez family is advancing the gospel by building relationships and trusting God to work.

On a family prayer walk, Edgar Rodriguez helped his children see their neighborhood in a new light. The pastor of New City Fellowship in Chicago’s Humboldt Park asked his kids what they saw as they walked.

“Our oldest said, ‘I see children,’” Edgar said. His response: “This is your mission right here.”

In the second-deadliest neighborhood in Chicago, Edgar and his wife, Sonia, are raising their seven children to play an integral role in transforming their community by sharing—and living— the gospel.

They’ve heard the questions about living in a dangerous place, Edgar said. “Why don’t you move out of there?”

“We believe that we have the solution to change their hearts, which is Jesus. Everything else is going to fall short,” said the church planter who launched New City Fellowship three years ago.

“We can’t leave.”

Sonia says, “If I’m giving my children the gospel, and they can give the gospel to another child, why wouldn’t I train them up for other people in the neighborhood to possibly know Christ?”

Life together
Edgar didn’t want to go back to his old neighborhood to plant a church. He was frustrated with the people—“his own people,” he said. Humboldt Park is undergoing gentrification, meaning coffee shops are popping up, along with more expensive housing. And a new demographic—hipsters—are joining large African-American and Hispanic populations.

Spiritually, though, religious tradition still had more influence than culture-impacting gospel ministry. But the couple sensed God was moving them back to the neighborhood where they both spent at least part of their childhoods.

“God, forgive me for being like Jonah,” Edgar remembers praying.

“We knew the mess that existed, but through prayer and counsel and things of that nature, we just kept telling one another that it makes sense. If the darkness in this neighborhood is what it is, and we’re light, it’s actually kind of foolish and cowardice to leave it like it is.”

Three years ago, the Rodriguezes started New City Fellowship in their apartment. Once they outgrew the space, they moved into the Humboldt Park headquarters of the Chicago Metro Baptist Association.

Planting a church in a tough neighborhood has its challenges, especially when you open your own home like the Rodriguezes have tried to do. They’ve invited drug addicts and dealers to share meals at their table. When a former friend reached out for help and a place to stay, they let him live with them for a while. That particular encounter resulted in Edgar sustaining a blow to the head when the man threw his phone at him in anger.

Months later, Edgar saw the man again. He walked up to him and reached out his arms. “Who would I be if I would not extend to you what Jesus extended to me?” the pastor explains now.

As they engage their neighbors, the couple exercises wisdom when it comes to protecting their children, but they say total security is an unreachable goal. They move forward holding out the gospel, and trusting God to work.

“Even at my best as a husband, as a father, as a protector, I can’t bullet-proof my family,” Edgar says. “When you look at Scripture, God didn’t avoid putting his people in the world. He gave his son knowing what he was going to face.”

New City Fellowship meets on Sunday for worship, but the church also gathers several times during the week for Bible study and meals together. It’s an approach they call “life on life,” which Edgar admits sounds a little cliché, even to them. But it’s a way to describe how they’re trying to integrate gospel-centered community into the everyday rhythms of life—eating, shopping, laundry, etc. What can their small group of Christians do together, so that the gospel goes forward as they disciple each other?

Some people would say it’s too much, Edgar says, and it could be, if you’re going out of your way. But the things their church does together, they’re already doing.
“It’s not a burden for us, and it’s not too much for us. And other families are starting to realize, ‘I need this.’”

The Marshes

The Marshes of Macon are renovating an old church building to create a gathering space for their neighbors.

Opening their doors
Marsh church renovationIn a small community three hours from Humboldt Park, Alan and Marie Marsh are creating a permanent space to welcome their neighbors. When the Marshes moved to Macon, just south of Decatur, they didn’t settle in a traditional house. Instead, they purchased a century-old church building they plan to transform into a community center.

“We believe that wherever the Lord puts us is where we need to reach out,” said Marie, who, as a baker and artist, has big plans for the former Presbyterian church that sits in a neighborhood of quaint homes.

The Marshes live in an office/classroom wing that was added to the original sanctuary, and the family uses the sanctuary to host a “life group” of people from their church, Tabernacle Baptist in Decatur. Eventually, the space could include a library, coffee shop, and other spaces for people in Macon to come together and, as Marie put it, take a little break from their world.

“One thing that I feel like I’ve learned throughout the years is that there are hurting people everywhere,” she says. People might not want to walk into a church they’re new to, but her family can offer their neighbors a place to sit and read and relax. “I look at that as kind of our ministry,” Marie says. “They can walk in the door and they’re going to be loved.”

The Marshes share the space with daughters Grace, 12, and KatieAnn, 22, both of whom are invested in their parents’ outreach to the community. KatieAnn “is the one that goes all in when there’s an outreach that I’m a part of,” Marie says, “like helping with Grace or making, decorating, and packaging 600 cupcakes for our church’s Easter outreach. She has a giving heart that doesn’t stop.”

Sixth grader Grace also plays a key role in building relationships. She was the Marshes first foster child placement, and the couple adopted her when she was three. “To her, there’s no such thing as a stranger,” Marie says of her daughter.

Because the Marshes have fostered several children during her lifetime, Grace is accustomed to people coming and going. “And now when children come into her life, they’re her immediate friends. She welcomes them,” Marie says. “Her role is just to be herself.”

Macon is a small community, and quiet—except on the school bus Marie drives, she jokes. When the Marshes moved to Illinois, she homeschooled Grace. Once she enrolled in public school last fall, Marie got her bus license and a job as a route driver. The job has given her an opportunity to meet families in town.

It’s Marie’s own history as a child in need of a home that motivates her and her family to reach out to others with similar needs.

“I looked at it as people opening up their home for me,” she says of her years as a foster kid, “so opening up my home to someone else is a way for me to give back to God.” Her voice breaks when she acknowledges, “You can’t repay, except to do unto others as it was done unto you in that sense.”

The Marshes are taking the long view of renovating their new home and future community gathering place. They envision family movie nights, craft sessions, and maybe a place for a church to hold a worship service again. For now, their mission is to be open to the possibilities.

“We invest in people’s lives,” Marie says. “And how we do that is just by opening up our lives and our doors to them.”

-Meredith Flynn

Table Grace

It starts with a simple invitation.

“Have dinner with us.”

In a world where people tend to isolate themselves from their neighbors, Chad Williams and his family are recapturing an old-school concept to make a gospel difference in their community.

The family of five has a vision for biblical hospitality. They’re on a mission to bring people into their home and around their table to hear the gospel.

“They need Jesus, so we want them to come over to our house and see what it looks like to be a family that follows Christ,” said Williams, former family pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur and the new senior pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.

“All of our flaws, all of our issues, our dirty house,” Williams said. “This is who we are.”

The Williamses try to designate one night a week to invite people to their home for a meal. It’s not fancy—tacos or chili. And it’s not necessarily reciprocated. But the family has been able to sow seeds of the gospel, and they’ve seen results. Recently, they invited a family from church to dinner. The father, not yet a Christian, engaged in several hours of conversation with the Williamses.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know our neighbors, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.” – Chad Williams, Rochester FBC

“He had a perception of who Christians were…as he got to spend time with us, there became this openness,” Williams said. A few weeks later, the man decided to follow Christ.

Asked if the commitment to spend time with others each week impinges on their family time, Williams said no, because it’s a shared commitment. The family is still at home, still sharing a meal together. They’re just inviting another family to join them. “We see this as part of our mission,” he said, “and we want to be on mission as a family.”

How can we help?
Chris Merritt and his wife, Alyssa, moved to Blue Mound, Ill., seven years ago. Both raised in central Illinois, the couple knew they wanted to live in a smaller town. Blue Mound, a community of around 1,200, is where they’re raising their two pre-teen sons.

Their church, Tabernacle Baptist in Decatur, sponsors two small groups in the region where the Merritts live. Along with their fellow life group members, the family is invested in building relationships in Blue Mound through community activities and by simply looking for opportunities to meet needs.

About a year ago, the Merritts approached their local school to see how they could help out. When the principal identified mentoring as an area of need, the couple and others from their church started a mentoring program.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.” – Chris Merritt, Tabernacle BC

“It’s just a regular, consistent positive influence of adults into kids’ lives who maybe need an extra positive influence,” said Merritt, who serves as church administrator at Tabernacle. The 12 students in the mentoring program have lunch every other week with their mentors. For that hour, he said, someone is asking them questions, encouraging them, and helping them make good decisions.

Outside of the mentoring program, the Merritts also are involved in Blue Mound through community sports leagues—the kids as players, and Merritt as a coach. He said being involved in the community through their kids’ activities is a natural choice. And they try to be intentional about making the most of their opportunities.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.”

Faith in action
Erica Luce credits her husband’s upbringing for her children’s willingness to serve their neighbors. “Dan spent his life serving others because his parents were so others-focused,” said the member of Delta Church in Springfield. That’s why their three children can often be found raking or shoveling to help a neighbor, or baking a welcome present for neighborhood newcomers.

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God,” Luce said. “They see faith in action, whether they want it or not.”

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God.” – Erica Luce, Delta Church

It’s been contagious on their block too, she said, recalling a time when her 12-year-son was shoveling a neighbor’s driveway and another neighbor came out to help.

Seeing the family home as missionary tool—whether it’s a place to invite people to, or a place missionaries are sent out of—is something Christians needs to recapture, Chad Williams said. Too often, we’ve lost the idea that our neighborhoods and workplaces are mission fields. Instead of seeing people’s need for Jesus, we see our co-workers and neighbors simply as people we interact with—and, if they’re hurting, we often don’t know it.

Rather than backing away from a culture that seems increasingly far from the gospel, Christian families have an opportunity to lean in closer, Williams said.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know them, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.”

Young family

Gen-Z has its own language and way of communicating. How can we connect?

Her inquisitive 4-year-old sat in his booster seat snacking on chips, staring out the window, and watching the world pass by.

“Daddy, why is the sky blue?”

Leneita Fix listened as her husband gave a simple yet scientific answer to her sweet boy. Then boy asked, “Why do cows moo?”

Her husband began talking about the communication strategies of livestock when her son posed a third question.

“How did Jesus do it? How did he take away my sin?”

Fix and her husband glanced at each other. Wow, where to start? Better not mess this up with the wrong words and confuse him. Maybe talk about the ABC’s of being a Christian? Or focus on the theology of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. Probably need to tell him the definition of sacrifice—

“Whoa! Look at the size of this Dorito!!” the child said next.

“I love to tell that story because it perfectly exemplifies the reality of Generation Z,” said Fix, speaker, missions and training coordinator for BowDown Church and Urban Youth Impact in West Palm Beach, Florida, and author of several books including No Teenager Left Behind. “This generation has so much information at their fingertips that they are used to having the answers immediately. They want to soak up information, including deep spiritual truths about who God is, but they have only about an 8-second attention span.”

Getting it right
Generation Z is the group of children and students who are being raised and launched into the world right now. Born between 1995 to the present, Gen-Z is nicknamed the “Always On Generation” because they’ve never known a life without a touchscreen, without global terrorism, without civic unrest and financial unrest, and they have a unique perspective of what a normal family unit looks like.

“Another difference is while Millennials are well-known for dealing with FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, Generation Z is more concerned with FOMU, or Fear of Messing Up,” Fix said during her D6 Connect Tour presentation at First Baptist Church Bethalto.

Sky, cow, Jesus, Dorito: This teacher’s story shows how today’s kids can think deep thoughts—and shallow ones—almost at the same time. How will parents make the most of the moments they have to communicate about the more important matters?

“They have a deep need to know the right answers and having Google at their fingertips leaves no room for doubt. Studies show that Gen-Z is destined for success in both college and career and they care about injustice more than any other generation in history.” However, it’s their fear of imperfection and “not getting it right” that Fix said could easily derail their ambitions.

“We have to teach them the difference between messing up and intentionally making wrong decisions,” Fix said. “It’s OK to not know the answer or to have questions. We all have questions and don’t have it all figured out. Give them the space and grace to not be perfect. However, if they intentionally choose not to do a homework assignment or some other truly wrong decision, that’s not OK.”

And despite every preventive measure taken, Brian Housman, author of Tech Savvy Parenting, said wrong choices and moral failures are going to happen. He said parents and the church support system must always parent with the end game in mind.

Housman used the example of a video he once saw of 16-year-old Bobby Fisher playing ten games of chess at once. He won every match and when interviewed about how he kept track of each game Fisher said based on the opponent’s prior moves and body language, he developed a strategy to win and then just let that strategy play out.

“We have an end-game in mind financially and in our careers,” Housman said. “We need to focus on the end-game with our kids and the good news is that we’re not alone. We are partnering with the Savior to raise them to be like Christ.”

Without the end game in the forefront, parents default to wanting to change feelings and even unintentionally guilt their kids into better behavior.

“We’ve become geniuses at sin management and masters at behavior modifications,” Housman said. “Christian parents, particularly those in the ministry, are more concerned about the appearance of things and what might make us look bad. We make it about us when we want to change the feeling or their behavior. We need to seek to change their heart.”

“The best approach to moral failure in our kids is the same as God’s approach to us,” he said. “God never shames his children. He loves first, forgives, acknowledges the wrongdoing, but understands what we’re going through. God chooses to be with
us as we walk out of it.”

Say it, don’t Snap it
Communication is key. This generation is bombarded with messages coming at them from every one of their devices. However, when it comes to hearing the messages that matter, Fix said face-to-face interaction is still the best way.

“Don’t over complicate things,” she said. “Generation Z is striving for authenticity. Many studies have shown that they actually prefer face-to-face communication over the multitude of other options. Yes, they talk through Snapchat and Instagram and even through their video games, but the people they consider themselves closest to are those they see every day at home, church, and school.”

But never wait for the perfect moment to have an in-depth conversation, because that moment will never come for these success-driven kids. Instead, Fix suggests utilizing the margins of time between practices and appointments, dinner prep, or yard work.

“There is no longer the space or grace to wait,” she said.

“Remember sky, cow, Jesus, Dorito. Sometimes God will lay an encouraging word or thought on my heart and I text it to my kids right away, because they need to know God loves them and I love them all the time. We need to become really good at communicating in the moments we have.”

-Kayla Rinker is a freelance writer living in Park Hills, Mo. 

Feeding the family

ib2newseditor —  June 29, 2017

‘Generational discipleship’ sets the table for a new approach to family ministry.

Pizza

The fraction 1/168 is a tiny number. It’s hard to grasp what 1/168 of a pie or a pizza even looks like. The pizza would be a super-skinny slice with a smidgeon of sauce and a partial pepperoni. Certainly not enough to satisfy.

“The denominator in the fraction stands for the number of hours in a week,” said Ron Hunter, author of The DNA of D6: Building Blocks of Generational Discipleship. There are 168 hours in a week. “The scary part is what the numerator represents: the average number a student spends engaged in church-related discipleship each week.” In other words, one hour.

Hunter shared this example during the D6 Connect Tour held at First Baptist Church Bethalto on May 24, one of five stops made on the tour.

The 1/168 figure comes from thirty minutes of small group time combined with thirty minutes of a sermon-type message from a pastor or youth pastor. D6—a movement intentional about empowering parents, homes, marriages, leaders and churches to live out the story of Deuteronomy 6—uses this fraction to make the point that time spent in church is not enough time to truly make disciples as Jesus instructed.

A new way to slice it: Families have their kids 168 hours a week. The church has them only one, maybe two. How can churches help parents disciple their own children, rather than outsourcing it to the youth pastor or Sunday school teacher? This movement returns responsibility to the home, with a new kind of help from the church.

Small group ministries are the primary means of discipleship among most churches. This Scripture shows that God’s design for the family is the original small group. Discipleship begins and is sustained at home.

“Generational discipleship means pastors and church leaders are doing less ministry, and are pouring their time and effort into helping others do more ministry… particularly in their own homes,” Hunter said.

That means youth pastors and children’s pastors need to be spending a third of their time or more mentoring the parents of these young people and not just the young people themselves. The church can equip parents to best launch their kids into adulthood as Christ followers.

“Ministers need to de-emphasize themselves as the spiritual leader and be intentional about how they can set mom and dad up for wins,” Hunter said. “The question we ask is ‘What would it look like if our church went home?’”

A better plan
The family unit is God’s intended launching pad for new adults. That means painful conversations and hard lessons will occur during childhood and especially during the adolescent years. Hunter said giving parents tools and guiding them away from delegating these conversations is crucial.

“Deuteronomy’s generation discipleship is not just about the next generation, it’s about every generation working together,” he said.

That means taking a critical look at how church is conducted on a weekly basis. Is the church equipping the saints with the right end game in mind?

“I’ve had the chance to sit down in a number of church staff meetings and 95% of the time is spent talking about church services and how the next Sunday will go,” Hunter said. “Discipleship is not an event to plan or a small group strategy: it’s a way of life.”

“Listen, Israel: The Lord our God,
the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God
with all your heart, with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
These words that I am giving you
today are to be in your heart. Repeat them
to your children. Talk about them when you
sit in your house and when you
walk along the road, when you lie down
and when you get up.”
– Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (CSB)

Generations and gaps
For decades, the church has lost the majority of its children who have grown up in Christian homes. Teenagers get their driver’s licenses and basically drive away from the church.

As the church recognizes that home is the vehicle for imparting faith to the next generation, leaders of the D6 ministry contend parents must begin to own the fact that they are the primary disciplers of their own children.

“Our goal is to revamp the way we do curriculum and create connection points for conversation,” said Brandon Roysden, D6 conference coordinator. “We want to take the philosophy of Deuteronomy 6 and provide a practical way for parents and churches to implement it.”

But how does the church come alongside the child who doesn’t have a support system at home? Brian Housman, executive director of 360 Family Conference and author of several parenting books including Tech Savvy Parenting, said the church should not negate the importance of family-centered discipleship because of the brokenness of sin.

“The church must fill the gap and find a way to partner with that single mom or that grandparent who is raising their grandkids,” he said. “We’ve done a great job of dividing ourselves into different age-appropriate ministries and its time to open the doors and invite each other in. Instead of children’s events and youth events, have family events and family service projects where everyone participates. Let’s all come together and do this thing together.”

No one is meant to be lone rangers when it comes to the support and encouragement of their families, he concluded.

“We are supposed to love and encourage others and others are supposed to love and encourage us. It’s supposed to be a big circle,” said Leneita Fix, author, speaker and missions/training coordinator for BowDown Church and Urban Youth Impact in West Palm Beach, Florida. “We have a young man on our track team and his father was diagnosed with stage four cancer. We asked what we can do to help and the best way we’ve found is to literally run alongside him this summer as he continues his training. It’s volunteering our unique gifts and talents that make the church the church. It’s not programmatic, it’s helping your congregation notice the people around them and love them well.”

For more information on D6 conferences, visit d6family.com.

Kayla Rinker is a freelance writer living in Park Hills, Mo. where she serves alongside her husband, Josh, who is youth pastor at First Baptist Church Desloge. Kayla is also a stay-at-home mom to their four sons, keeping her life full of craziness and joy.

Close-up of father and son fixing bike

There is a tape that plays in my head. I don’t turn it on, it just plays. I found it playing deep in the recesses of my mind when I disciplined my children or taught them to play ball or how to hammer a nail. It plays involuntarily still when I show my grandchildren how to cast a fishing line or how to play well with their siblings.

It goes like this: “How did my Dad do it?”

This intimidates me a bit because I know my children—and yours—have a tape playing in their own minds. This intimidation only deepens when I consider the common description of God as a father. When our children go to church they learn the lesson that God is their heavenly Father, and they can’t help but see that through the lens of their own earthly dad.

At our best, we will be imperfect fathers. We will always be imperfect models because we are imperfect people. But God uses fatherhood as a description of himself. We are, for good or for bad, examples from which our kids learn about God. We are, for good or for bad, examples from which our kids learn how to do life.

Here are some suggestions about how dads can get this right—imperfect, but right:

1. Show your children how to love their families. Dads, make sure your children know you love them. Let them know you love them when they succeed and let them know you love them when they fail. Be certain they know that your love is unconditional. That you love them whether they do right or wrong. That you love them even when you discipline them. That you discipline them because you love them.

Proverbs 3:12 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.” Unconditional love is a powerful force in the life of a child.

And, make sure they know you love their mother. Teach them by your actions how a man is to treat his wife. Live out Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” Show by your love and sacrifice that you treasure your wife so they can see a healthy model.

2. Show your children how to love the church and the things of God. I am very blessed that my father took me to church. He cared so much about my spiritual development that he took me to church Sunday by Sunday. Note that he didn’t just send me to learn from others. He took me and thereby taught me to value this institution formed by the Lord. By the way, he didn’t give me a choice about attending church any more than he let me choose whether to skip school or to stay up all night long or to eat only ice cream.

Show your kids that the things of God are important. Help them see that church is God’s idea, the Bible is God’s Word, and prayer is talking to God. Let them see this by how you spend your time and your money. Let them see this by what you talk about and what you do.

3. Show your children how to love Jesus and to follow him closely. Faith is about more than going to church or being moral. Ultimately, it is about a personal relationship with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ. Let your children know by your words and your actions that Jesus is your Savior, your Lord, and the center of your life. Tell them about when you trusted Christ. Talk to them about what God is doing in your life currently. Let them know the primacy of your devotional life—that Dad reads his Bible and spends time with the Lord in prayer.

You are going to get some things wrong in parenting. But don’t get this one wrong. Let your children know that you love Jesus more than them and that this love makes you love them more than you ever could otherwise. Let them know that your commitment to Jesus not only gives you a home in heaven one day, but it makes your home better in this day.

Dads, there is one more gift to give to your children. Help them hear an even better tape that needs to play in their minds than “What would Dad do?” This tape has to be played consciously and intentionally. It goes like this: “What does my Heavenly Father want?”

Dads, you can let them see some of the answer to that question in your life.

Doug Munton is first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in O’Fallon, Ill. His latest book is titled “30 Days to Acts.”

Church pews with hymnalsI’ve never really had a moment in my life—39 years—when I wasn’t going to church. My parents got engaged and married in the church. I was born into, raised in, and baptized in church.

My parents, first-generation Christians, were devout church-goers. We went every time the doors were open—and many times when they weren’t. My father, a plumber, volunteered thousands of man-hours helping build church buildings. My mother volunteered, worked as a secretary, and later served as a preschool teacher.

Since age five, I sat in services: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I wasn’t allowed to draw. I was required to sit up straight—no fidgeting. And I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep.

Up through my teenage years, I thought of church as a bit boring. Sure, there were some life-changing, soul-stirring messages at summer camp or a special service. But for most of my life, including my years as a pastor, I did pretty much the same thing every week: singing familiar songs, reading Scripture, listening to a sermon.

Ironically, one axiom of my childhood evangelical faith was this: Church is more than the service or a building; it is the called-out people of God, living on mission every day. Church, I was told, will not get you to heaven. Only a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ will do that.

Tantalizing ways to excite people, or timeless rituals that shape our hearts?

I still believe this, more strongly now than ever, but I also believe that in some ways church does—or did—save me. It didn’t save me in the ways you might expect: a spectacular Sunday service, a home run sermon, or a gripping worship set. God’s primary tool to transform my heart was not the conference speaker or the traveling revivalist or the worship concert. Those events were important, but now I realize that, more often, God changed my life using routine worship services in which I sang hymns I didn’t quite understand and heard messages I didn’t quite grasp.

During times of fear and anxiety, I drift back to the words of hope from Martin Luther’s epic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

And though this world, with
devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.

When I feel insecure, I recall the lines of the Methodist hymn:
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.

The hymns of the blind poet, Fanny Crosby. The majestic lines from Isaac Watts. The simple melodies of Bill Gaither. These are just a few of the hundreds of hymns that were cemented in my heart from week after week of “boring” church services. As a young child enduring the routines of our Baptist church, I didn’t realize what was happening to me.

In his book, “You Are What You Love,” James K. A. Smith talks about the way our hearts are formed:

“There is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life— to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”

This repetition built in my heart a deep reservoir of theology. And now, as a husband and father, and pastor, whenever I stand and sing these hymns, I can barely contain myself. Some choruses evoke memories: My father serves communion while “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” plays faintly in the background. Dad fights back tears as we sing “Jesus Paid It All.”

These rituals train our hearts. We sing to ourselves songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. We hear the gospel preached to us over and over. We lift the cup to our lips and the bread to our tongues remembering, again, our place at the King’s table. Through these practices, God takes our hearts and seals them for his courts above, to paraphrase another hymn writer, Robert Robinson.

Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t eschew creativity in the church. We are, after all, “new creation” people. But our creativity should not seek to tell a new story. It should be designed to communicate to our hearts that same, old, wonderful story of salvation.

When I think back on the simple routines that changed my life, I’m encouraged in my own pastoral role. I’m reminded afresh that the work of ministry is not so much about finding new, tantalizing ways to make people excited about Jesus, but about the timeless rituals that shape their hearts.

Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Previously, he served as a senior pastor in the Chicago suburbs. This column is excerpted from Baptist Press.

Unintended family histories

ib2newseditor —  January 23, 2017

My wife, Beth, is definitely the gift-giving genius in our family. She has, I believe, the spiritual gift of giving, and so she is not only generous, but also has a knack for choosing gifts that are personal, useful, meaningful, and often even frugal. But this year, it seems, I got lucky, and thought of a pretty neat gift for her.

Just a couple of days before Christmas, I was scrambling to put together our annual family Christmas letter. For 24 years now, since our youngest son Ethan was born, we have produced a two-page letter with an overall family update on the front page, and individual updates on the back page.

Beth provides the raw content for the letter, and then I work at making it humorous or at least interesting. Unfortunately, multiple moves and computer changes over the years had left us without copies of many of the older letters, the ones that described little boys and grade schoolers rather than college students and young men.

There’s a sense in which our churches today, now walking in the light of fully revealed Scripture, continue to add their own pages to the story of God’s faithfulness to his people, his family.

So I set out to find all the old computer files, to update and repair the documents the best I could, to recreate the pieces that were missing, and to print them out fresh, or photocopy the originals I could find. On Christmas morning, I presented Beth with a complete notebook of those letters, all carefully protected in clear plastic sleeves, and with front and back covers decorated with photos of our growing family across the years.

I kind of hoped that Beth would like the gift, and I thought our kids might eventually like copies too. So I made extra copies while I was at it, but only wrapped one to place under the tree. As soon Beth opened it, not only did she love it, but it became the conversation piece of Christmas.

Our sons and daughters-in-law quickly asked for turns reading it, and asked if they could get their own copies some time. That’s when I had the fun of retrieving books for each of them from the next room. To my surprise, all other gift opening came to a halt, as we all sat and paged through our family’s journey from little boys to big boys, from Illinois to Georgia and back to Illinois, from trips in America to trips abroad, and from one year of God’s faithfulness to another.

I’ve been reflecting since then on how surprisingly valuable and precious this last-minute gift was, and why it has continued to captivate our family’s attention. As a gift, it was much more than a flurry of searching, typing, printing, and inserting. It was an unintended family history, a series of annual mileposts that traced our journey as a family for a quarter century.

My thoughts turned from our family’s story, to the Christmas story, to the stories of the Bible, and ultimately to the fact that the Bible itself is essentially a family history of God and his people. None of its authors, though divinely inspired, could see very clearly beyond their own time in history and their own chapter of faithfulness. But once Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s revelation, early church fathers could compile and preserve all those chapters into one wonderful notebook that we now rightly call the Holy Bible.

There’s a sense in which our churches today, now walking in the light of fully revealed Scripture, continue to add their own pages to the story of God’s faithfulness to his people, his family. As I discovered this Christmas, we may not fully realize the history we are writing until we have an opportunity to look back. But looking back should make us want to write this year’s chapter with great care.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.