Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

When parents meet me for the first time and show some interest in visiting our congregation they ask, “What sort of programs do you have for kids?” This question used to bother me more than it does now. I have come to accept it will be one of the first questions I am asked as a pastor. Parents desire solutions to the growing problem in our area of drugs, drinking, violence, and sex. There are people overdosing regularly, if not every day, shootings each month, sometimes a homicide, and many young women are pregnant. The world’s solution to the problem is not Jesus; it is more programs to keep kids busy and off the streets. This is where the Church and the world see the same problem, but have different solutions.

It is by this, the word of God, that Christians are made holy. Jesus, himself, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the Father to sanctify us by the truth. And he says, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17-21).

A rightly ordered life proceeds from none other than God, but the world is blind to this. Fathers and mothers who see youth programs as the main reason for going to church show a symptom of their spiritual wilderness of desolation. They are grabbing at the only thing they can understand. They do not understand the power of God to change the heart, nor could they without the Holy Spirit. Since the state of the world is in sin, the Church has been perceived by some as another social club to meet the felt need of communities. Sadly, rather than correct them, congregations have used this as a means to get people through the door. Many families attend until their children outgrow the programs and, then, they depart; the church having served its purpose.

It seems to be a never-ending cycle. Churches promise to have “youth programs” left and right- the flashiest, the deepest, and the most culturally relevant and families buy it.  Look around and see how many congregations have capitalized on the idolatry of youth programs. They sell themselves by their programs and let the efficacy of the Word fade into the background. When a congregation does not have youth programs, it is seen as second-rate, failing, and most likely on its way out. This idolatry has resulted in parishes being perfected in the image of the YMCA or other social clubs. This must come to an end. What must continue is the true witnessing to the world of the message which does justify and sanctify the sinner.

After our Lord rose from the dead and appeared to the eleven disciples, he rebuked them for the hardness of their heart and their unbelief. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16: 15-16). Jesus makes no promises to His disciples that he cannot keep. He will save those who believe and are baptized and condemn those who do not believe. This should be the promise the Church tells the world. This redemption is what makes the Church the holy bride of Christ. It is the responsibility of the pastor to turn the congregation away from boasting in promises it cannot keep.

A pastor should not make promises:  1) to have activities for kids 2) to be entertaining, 3) to be always exciting and captivating. If a pastor is always concerning himself with these things, he is likely to be diverting his focus away from the studying of God’s Word, something he actually promised to do in his ordination. This should go without saying, but it is not sinful for congregations to go on retreats, have community days, and generally have fun together. The problem we face is our sinful heart that would have us leave a faithful congregation if those things are non-existent. It is also a sin if the lack of these things is what keeps one from even visiting a faithful church.

An LCMS pastor will never say in his ordination vows that he is going to make every effort to be an excellent basketball player, youth coordinator, dodgeball player and all around event coordinator. He does promise to perform the duties of his office in accordance with the Confessions. He does promise that all his preaching and teaching and administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and the Confessions. The church may not always be able to have youth programs and activities, nor will a pastor always be fit or have time to lead them, but that is not the reason to stop bringing children to a faithful congregation. If you search the ordination vows you can find that an LC-MS pastor does not make a promise in his ordination that he can not keep with the help of God. He makes a promise that, with the help of God, he will carry out the duties of the office faithfully by instructing both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, forgiving the sins of those who repent and holding them in confidentiality. He makes a promise that, with the help of God, he will minister to the sick and dying, and demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel. He makes a promise that, with the help of God, he will admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living.

Extra time in programs and activities is not able to produce the holy living that comes by the Holy Spirit. Instead of giving people what they think they need, God gives them what they actually need. In our baptism, God gives us the Holy Spirit. He fights against the flesh, as it is written in Galatians 5:16-17, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

A congregation can be so focused on its youth programs that it forgets to teach the parents that holy living is the fruit of faith. Placing children in every activity that comes your way will not stop them from getting caught up in drugs, alcohol, violence, and sex. It may drive them right to those things as a way to cope with all the stress. The church being the Church, centered on the Gospel, is vital to the healthy home, community, and nation. No pastor should make promises that he nor the Church is able to keep.

The pastor who promises to honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life, a diligent study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions, and a life of prayer for those under his care does, in fact, keep those promises with or without programs for the youth. When I am personally met with the question of “what programs does your church have for kids,” I respond with, “We don’t have programs like the YMCA, but I do have what they need for salvation in Jesus Christ. I have a service each week and a midweek service where everyone hears the Word of God and learns the faith.” I continue to tell them why they need this in a culture that promotes violence, sex and the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Then I make them a promise to teach and preach Christ and Him crucified for their sins every week.

The promises of the pastor are good instruction for the laity. It is a common temptation for the laity to “talk up” a congregation because of the programs it offers. God’s children should not be ashamed of the will of the Father, for Jesus said it “is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:40). I encourage you, whether pastor or laity, to give answers beyond what they can grasp. Give them a reason for the hope that is within you and be joyful in your response. There is absolutely nothing shameful in having a congregation centered on the Word of God and the purity of that doctrine. Rather than feeling like there is shame or stumble over saying, “we do not have many youth programs, if any,” tell them about Jesus and the joy HE brings to families.

About Pastor Jacob Deal

Rev. Jacob T. Deal is the sole pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sharon, Pennsylvania, established in 1917. He attended the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN (M.Div., 2012-2016). He enjoys traveling to Haiti to help with recovery efforts and ministering to the pastors and laity. He and his beautiful wife, Ana, have enjoyed being married since two weeks before seminary. The Lord has provided them with three wonderful children, Isaiah, Titus, and Loretta.


Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep — 7 Comments

  1. Better yet:

    “we do not have many youth programs, if any, but we do have the proclaimed Gospel of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and the Sacraments rightly administered!”

    Nice article!

  2. Here’s the solution:
    Pastors need to explain to fathers their responsibility to be the spiritual leader of the family. To lead family devotions and set expectations for attending worship and volunteering service. Set expectations for Men’s Bible Study. Focus on training the father and the mother and children will follow his lead.

  3. Since Lutheran Pastors per your essay do not become dodgeball or basketball players etc. are they above that . Paul sums up his attitude as to what he would do to spread the Gospel in 1 Corinthians chapter 9”
    For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Do you think Paul would start a youth group to play dodgeball ?

  4. @Mark Rychel #3

    The text you reference from 1 Corinthians 9 shows Paul’s wisdom in knowing his hearers. Just as Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners so Paul goes out to all people. Paul did not purposefully go out of his way to offend the Jews by making fun of their customs, but he did call their yoking of gentiles to the Law a sin when their problem was righteousness by works. Paul did however have Timothy, whose mother was a Jew, circumcised so that Timothy would be a witness to the Jews. Paul knew that the Gentiles would not have known the Law of God, only that which had been written on their hearts. His preaching to the Gentiles, those outside the law, was tuned to their knowledge of philosophy and even the Greek sporting events. This would not have been his preaching to the Jews who were suppose to be the believers in the Messiah. The weak or those who were more vulnerable to falling away from the Christian faith he fed with spiritual milk. He also did nothing which, although free to do in the Gospel to do, may have brought offense to them, such as eating the food sacrificed to idols.

    Paul would not have given up the ministry of the Word to start a youth group to play dodgeball. Think back to Acts 6, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.””

    This references the deacon, but it shows also that those who were sent out as the preacher and teachers were to be most wholly focused and concerned with this task of the Lord. You ask, “are they above that.” Those tasks are not given in the scriptures for the pastor to focus his time on doing. Can he play basketball and dodgeball, sure. Should that be where his time and effort is spent for the church. Absolutely not. Paul was not above doing manual labor as a tent maker, but in his ministry he was all about and wholly concerned with preaching.

    I mentioned in my article that it is not a sin to have fun events for your church to do. It is not a sin for the youth group to enjoy a game of dodgeball. We cannot, as the church, promise to have those things or make those the things we “advertise” our congregations as having. The danger I spoke of is these things becoming the idols of the congregation. Another danger is people believing you need these things in order for the lost to be saved. It will draw their hope away from the Word of God and misplace it in the actions of man to give a bait and switch tactic.

  5. @Rose #2

    Rose, as a father of three children I could not agree more. Our community is full of children who do not know their father. So many of my interactions are with mothers who have multiple baby daddies. The Fathers not being the head of the household stems from the fall. It is easier to remain silent and in laziness abdicate the role to your spouse or let it die altogether. I make it a point when I do speak with Father to encourage them to lead their family in devotions. Especially throughout the Small Catechism we see the reoccurring words, “As the head of the household should teach.” They are not a mistake. It is so important for young boys and girls, but especially young boys to see their father in church, praying, reading the psalms, taking Communion, and all that comes with being a Christian!

  6. Had the United Methodist youth group of my yesteryears (from which I do not exclude the Baptist student organization I joined in college) actually taught the substance of the Small Catechism instead of showing those blasted Rob Bell ‘Nooma’ videos, I myself might not have wandered off into a self-justifying hedonism with only a withering shadow of a Christian confession, denying any power to the form of godliness. Praise be to Christ that I was taken out of that.

    But had my own father taken Christian duty to teach and lead his family in hand, I might never have been there in the first place.

    What this article says of the idolatry of youth programs is most certainly true in my own experience. I remember the cookie platters, the game nights and pietistic retreats, the ice-cream trough sundae with a hundred spoons; I remember criss-crossing the county to do random, even violent acts of kindness; I remember the bizarre directive to purchase something with a piece of cheese from the local mall. I cannot remember the substance of one single teaching of a passage of the Gospels.

    Lord, have mercy upon us for wasted youth.

    Pax Christi,

    Elias Foxmane

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