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.