Providing an easy onramp back to the church

Oh, How Nice It Would Feel To Drop the Hammer of Truth!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had high schoolers lay into me about how youth group doesn’t do it for them anymore, or about how they need something with more depth. Sometimes I lie awake at night, imagining all the ways I would love to give it right back to them; to actually be a straight shooter and tell them how it really is. But just when I’m about to explode and completely blow away some unsuspecting, verbally processing mid-adolescent, God gives me a gracious reminder of my unique role and purpose in the body of Christ.

I recently had lunch with a former student who was the thorn in my side during her time in my student ministry.  Everything I did wasn’t good enough, every lesson wasn’t deep enough, and every other adult in her life was smarter and wiser then I ever could be.  Now, while most of my students probably already believe this, this young woman decided to make it very clear to me how dissatisfied she was with my leadership of our group.

I distinctly remember a conversation we had at the end of her sophomore year, when she tried to let me down easy that she would no longer be joining us for sunday school because it was baby food, and she would be going to big church instead.  She then proceeded to invite any other students who wanted real spiritual food to join her.

Their Self-Righteous and Rebellion is Right and Normal:

Part of the developmental process of adolescence is defining their own faith by separating themselves from the faith of their families, and sometimes even their church, or me.  While I totally get that students need to stretch their wings and learn to fly spiritually, it still crushes my spirit.  I know I should be mature enough to handle the ridicule of my faith, my job and my calling by someone who wasn’t even born when I started doing student ministry.  And I should be gracious enough to absorb the observation of the shallowness of my faith and lack of biblical depth, even though I aced seminary and they are getting a D in Algebra.  But I am not.  At least not at first.

It would be great if the job of the youth worker was to take these teachable moments and drive home the truth of the situation with a sledgehammer; to clarify their hypocrisy, fickleness, and self-righteousness, combined with self-absorption.   But I firmly believe that being the arbiters of truth is not our calling; rather we are to be fountains of grace.

Jesus Christ was the perfect completion and balance of truth and grace.  Many times we lie to ourselves and think that we can be balanced in doling out these attributes as well.  But I have found that in student ministry, grace is far more what is needed than truth.  For a teenager, the emotion surrounding an idea or place carries much more weight than logical truth.  And because of this, it is imperative for youth workers to graciously walk through the emotional ups and downs in the faith development of students rather than lay down the law and hold their feet to the fire.  I wrote more about this here:

Ok, back to my lunch . . .

As we sat down to eat, I had no idea what to expect from her since we, obviously, hadn’t been that close during the end of her high school career or throughout college.  But what came out of her mouth was totally unexpected.  She began the conversation with, “Ben, I wanted to apologize for the way I treated you and our church during my time in the youth group.”  I was blown away and almost cried.  (Almost crying is crying for normal people.) I had forgiven this young woman years ago, and to hear the apology brought instant restoration in our relationship.

The rest of our time together was her telling of the way that God had been graciously drawing her back to Jesus.  She is a part of an amazing Christian community that she picked on her own, while away at college.  As she's worked out her own faith, she has been able to reflect back and own the places where her self-righteousness caused harm.  Apologizing to me is part of her moving forward in her own journey, and a great byproduct  reopened the door for me to be her biggest cheerleader.

If I am honest, this isn’t a unique story.  There are countless students who have done this to us.  And, the truth is that all of us, at one point or another have also gotten a little too excited in the area of self-righteousness.  I remember when I first really started developing my own, distinct faith and how i blew up the adults, church leaders, and friends as I worked out my own junk.

We Must Make Bigger Onramps not Harsher Billboards:

Being wrong, being self-righteous, totally missing God’s voice or direction is part of working it out.  Even total rebellion and walking away from the faith is often part of process of adolescence.  Because the emotional memory of an encounter and relationship will always trump the truth of the content of an encounter, we must ooze grace and give space for students to work it out.

This is vital to our calling because, at some point in the future, the Holy Spirit will actually knock loud enough on the hearts of our old students to call them back to Jesus and to the Church.  The work we do in these moments of potential confrontation can either shut down that process completely or, instead, make giant, easy onramps back into Christian community.

It is a fine line we walk as youth workers.  After this lunch, I am once again reminded that my job is to be the adult in the relationship.  I am to be emotionally stable, kind, gracious, and gentle.  I am not the one who convicts of sin or leads to repentance.  That is the job of the Holy Spirit.  The more I remember that, the longer my view gets, the better I can do my true job of providing opportunities and onramps for students to know Jesus and be involved in the Church.  The how and when they choose to take advantage of those opportunities is up to God.

What can Graduation teach us about our calling?

What can Graduation teach us about our calling?

Guess What? It's Not About You!

A call to student ministry is a special and unique thing. We have been called by God to participate in the spiritual development of students. For a very specific and often chaotic season, we get the privilege and honor of being adults who coach, mentor, disciple and journey with adolescents who are exploring their faith and making it their own. What could be greater? As we attempt to live this out in the real world with real students in a real context, this simple and yet profound calling gets blurry.

The students we work with have joys and concerns, victories and losses, growth and set backs. We attempt to be there for every student for every part of the roller coaster ride; and while we work our guts out, pouring our lives into these students, our vision becomes impaired. Because very slowly, without us knowing, the joy that comes from getting to be there for students and walk with them turns and starts to become about us. Instead of being an adult who journeys with students for a season of their lives, we see ourselves as the adult who journeys with them, who advocates for them, who loves them, who will get them through adolescence, who will solve their problems, etc...

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Taking a needed break from Youth Group

Taking a needed break from Youth Group

We just completed our final youth group activity for the 2016-2017 school year. And for our rhythm, we are taking a much needed several week break. We have been running full speed since September 1 and our staff, volunteers, and even our students are tired and in desperate need for a break. So, instead of fighting it, we embrace it.

Do you take a break in your calendar?

When I first started in ministry, I never, ever, never, ever took a break. Finals week was a study break, Christmas break was a movie night, spring break was a mission trip, any break was an opportunity to be with students and build relationships and memories. I felt like every missed Wednesday night was a missed opportunity.

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Making relational space for this incoming class of students

Making relational space for this incoming class of students

One of the hardest things about doing student ministry in the same place for so long is saying goodbye to the graduating seniors and making space for the incoming 6th and 9th grade students.

We only have so many relational pegs:

I am sure you have probably heard the term relational pegs or something to that effect.  The basic idea is our hearts only have so many relational pegs in them.  We are one giant (or in my case, small) fall green lego panel.  On this lego panel we can fit a finite number of lego people.  Each lego person takes up two pegs, and once our panel is full so is our heart. Being in one place is good news on so many levels.

But it is pretty difficult to offload students with whom you have given your heart to.  You love all your students, and as they graduate they stay on our panel and when they come back we love to catch up with them, and hear all about their new adult lives.  We work hard to track down our current and former students in an attempt to both maintain relationship as well as check in on our investment.

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When is your expiration date for student ministry?

When is your expiration date for student ministry?

I have some bad news.  Your dream of life long student ministry is simply that, a dream.  Whether you like it or not, there is an expiration date for your time serving in student ministry.  But before you freak out, or throw a temper tantrum, take a second to consider this reality.  And if this is actually reality, then this has some really important and potentially life changing implications.

If, in fact, there is an ending to your student ministry career, then what are the things you need to be doing now to prepare for this future?  Great questions.  Here are a couple of ideas:

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13 Reasons Why: Youth Workers MUST be at the top of their game!

13 Reasons Why: Youth Workers MUST be at the top of their game!

Early on in my youth ministry career I was trained to do cultural exegesisOne of the foundational questions when consuming media is to ask yourself this question: "Is what I am watching Directive or Reflective?"  

Back in the good old days, it was easy to write off most edgy programming as simply directive programming and then find ways to protect our kids from being lead astray by media that was overly sexualized and dangerous.  This boycott mentality is deeply ingrained in the Christian psyche and all the old play books are coming out for the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

In such short order there have been many things already written about this series.  There is concern from physiologists, parents, schools and churches.  The concerns are real, concerns that this show glorifies suicide and will make it more normative in our communities.  (You can check out some of those posts, here, here, here, here, and here.) While must work with all our hearts to stop suicide and its glorification, we can not simply write off this series and condemn it.  We must engage the content and culture and see what we can learn about the hidden lives of our students. 

I think we should strongly consider that the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why is much more reflective than we think. Consider the possibility that this show doesn't glorify or dramatize the high school experience, but rather reflects it more accurately than any other program out there.

If this show gives us "out of touch" adults a glimpse into the lives of students, then we need to rethink everything we are doing in student ministry and get our heads in the game. This simply isn't the high school experience you remember.  And, as an adult leader in their world, we must start where they are, not where we think they are or where we want them to be.

Here are my 13 reasons why youth workers must be at the top of their game.

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Top 10 ways to survive reentry from #OC17

Top 10 ways to survive reentry from #OC17

Orange 2017 is over, you have checked out of your hotel, and it is now time to head back home. For the past several days you have had the amazing opportunity to be free from leadership responsibilities, drama, and obligations. You have been able to wonder around as you please, sleep in, visit with friends, and stay up too late. You have been encouraged and sharpened spiritually and vocationally. And it is now time to wrap it up and reengage life, real life, the life to which you were really called to live. If we are not careful, it is easy to come in at the wrong angle and disintegrate as we reenter. It takes intentional effort to maximize all that God has done in you this week and to make sure the seed lands in fertile soil. Here are 10 simple ways to survive reentry:

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Do you have a scope and cycle to your curriculum?

Do you have a scope and cycle to your curriculum?

Writing curriculum is one of the most challenging endeavors a youth worker undertakes.  (I have found that it is hard even writing the word curriculum, mostly because I am a horrible speller.)  As hard as writing curriculum can be, what really makes a curriculum great or awful is its scope and cycle.  And this is where Orange's XP3 Student ministry curriculum hits it out of the park!

It is often confusing cruising through a website and trying to figure out what is going on, why they do what they do, and how it all fits together. I get that 90% of that confusion is because I don't pay attention and skim read. So, I really enjoyed sitting down and having the creators of this material, Jeremy Zach and Jared Herd, explain it to me.

These two guys and their team put together some really great material. But what is even more compelling is the values they begin with as they write their curriculum.

Here are a few values that form the foundation of how this curriculum is put together.

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Top 10 ways to get the most out of the Orange Conference #OC17

Top 10 ways to get the most out of the Orange Conference  #OC17

Can you believe it? It is finally here. That most amazing gift a church can ever give to their youth worker, a youth ministry conference!! Your bags are packed, your room is booked, and it is time to go and get some freebies. For one weekend we get to take off our mantle of responsibility and leadership, and become participants, students, and receivers. Whether it is Youth Specialties, Orange, Simply Youth Ministry, or I Still Do, a youth ministry conference is the one time a year that us youth workers get to actually go to camp, and not just put it on. And like camp, there are some things that we need to do to prepare ourselves so that we can have an amazing time and get the most out of our time away. Every year before we take students to camp or on mission trips we give them a little pep talk, so here is yours :)

This week we are the Orange Conference.  Here are the top 10 ways to get the most out of your conference experience.

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Do you have something to add to the youth ministry conversation?

Do you have something to add to the youth ministry conversation?

Over the years I have loved the opportunity to share this space with some fellow youth workers who either have a unique voice, a unique thing to say, or who simply want to try their hand at writing.  

As I am getting older and worried less about building my platform, and living more fully into the small pond that God has landed me, I want to make more space for my colleagues who are leaving it all on the field as they generously love kids into the kingdom of God!

That means, my blog is your blog!  

If you have a unique voice, a unique thing to say, or simply want to try your hand at writing, consider my blog your blog.  If you want to use this space to promote your blog, that is ok too.  Simply send me a 500-700 word blog post, a short bio and a personal picture.

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Time to wrestle with the hidden sin of perfectionism and embrace its cure, authenticity

Time to wrestle with the hidden sin of perfectionism and embrace its cure, authenticity

 As a professional laborer for the Kingdom I find this to be the single hardest thing for us to do successfully. Being vulnerable is hard, especially when you are given positional authority. You are the youth worker, and whether you like it or not you are viewed and kept to a higher standard. Welcome to the world of perfectionism. 

This is how our world is built. You do well, you get a bonus or raise. (In most jobs, not necessarily youth ministry) You fail, you get punished or fired. This breeds perfectionism. Now, I'm not suggesting that we should not strive to make ourselves better, but I am suggesting that we live in to the authenticity of who we wholly are. 

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Is your heart ready for the spring drop off?

Is your heart ready for the spring drop off?

It is that time of year.  The most dreaded time of year, Spring!  While the weather is great, and baseball season is upon us, the lives of our students are beginning to disengage from the programmatic rhythms of youth group.  They call it senioritis, but I am still confused how a sophomore has senioritis.  The truth  is that our low stamina students are checking out of this school year.  With all of the ways that students were dialed in to their many activities early in the school year, now only one or two hold their interest.  In the case of my students that includes a spring sport and a love interest.

The truth is that there are actually ton of reasons that students begin to disengage during spring semester; some good, some dumb, but no matter why, the what is real and how we cope with it matters.  

For those of us who make our livings on developing environments and programs for students to build faith and community, this season can often be pretty difficult for the soul.  And if you at all resonate with this trying rhythm, I have some good news for you:  IT IS OK :)

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Great Programs Are a Must; But only as far as they serve their purpose, which is to provide hooks or relational ministry.

Great Programs Are a Must; But only as far as they serve their purpose, which is to provide hooks or relational ministry.

I think programatic youth ministry has gotten a bad rap over the past few years or decades.  A solid program is the skeleton in which relationships can be built and faith gets formed.  With no program, there is just you and a half dozen kids.  Every great youth ministry has a program that is fun, engaging, inviting, and points towards Jesus. But a good reminder is that no matter how amazing our programs are, how many cool lights and graphics we have, what are online presence and platform has become, without personal contact we have nothing.

At its very core, ministry is about relationships.   

Now I know you are pretty smart and know this.  But before you skim down to the end or click to a new page, ask yourself if you really do know this?  A good gut check is to take a look at your calendar and see how you spend your time. Of all the hours you have allotted to pull of ministry, how many of them are spent building relationship, doing contact work, texting your guts out, facebook and instagram stalking, buying ice cream and coffee for, calling, etc. Chances are less and less of your time is devoted to these things.

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How to recruit the best volunteers!

How to recruit the best volunteers!

This Isn't How it is Supposed To Be:

One of the worst feelings I've ever had in youth ministry is the feeling of going at it alone, feeling like I was the only one who cared for students at my church. Most of this feeling came because I really was the only adult from our church who was at youth group helping connect and pull off our program.

It doesn't take many nights like that, or trips where you find yourself scrambling at the last possible minute to find an adult to drive for you, that you are willing to do whatever it takes to recruit volunteers. At this point in the ministry it doesn't even matter if they like kids--just give me a warm body!

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Do you make space in your ministry for "Decision Night?"

Do you make space in your ministry for "Decision Night?"

A little context and brief commercial :) We just got back from an amazing weekend at Hume Lake for our annual winter camp.   Every time I leave I am so thankful for their amazing ministry to our students and to our staff.  With all complex issues that bear down on youth programs and Christian camps, Hume has managed to stay true to their calling and provide one of the most solid Christian Camping experiences out there.

Hume Lake takes what they do very seriously and strive for excellence on the two vital areas for any camp experience, recreation and chapel.  As youth ministries seem to be moving more and more away from big fun, Hume still embraces recreation as a worthy investment of time and resources.  And the result is a camp that is actually fun with tons of opportunities for interaction, memories, and casual conversations.

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3 Components for an effective leader's meeting

3 Components for an effective leader's meeting

Every week before youth group we have a half hour leader's meeting for our volunteer youth staff. This is, by far, the most important meeting of my week. It is an opportunity for our entire staff to touch base before we jump into another night of student ministry. Over the years these meetings have taken on many different looks. But as I continue to reflect on how to make that time a win for everyone, I have landed on my three most important components to an effective leader's meeting.

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5 reasons there will always be paid youth workers

5 reasons there will always be paid youth workers

There has been some discussion lately among some of my youth ministry friends about the future of our profession. There seems to be another round of shots fired across the bow at youth ministry and the professionals that lead these ministries. Sticky Faith, Family Based Ministries, and people with axes to grind continue to lay the decaying faith of adolescents and young adults squarely at the feet of us professionals and the failed models we are propping up.

Fellow professional youth workers have no fear, our jobs are here to stay!! We have an amazing calling and part of an amazing legacy, and I am convinced that for the foreseeable future, churches will continue to do everything in their power to make sure their staffs include a paid youth worker. Here's why:

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It's Just a Phase - Book Review #thinkorange

It's Just a Phase - Book Review #thinkorange

It's Just a Phase: So Don't Miss It is one of the most helpful ministry books I have read in a long time.  It is written like a textbook in its content, but presented as a picture books with plenty of graphics and colors to keep someone like me interested.  And the combination of information and engaging format makes for an incredible resource for anyone in ministry.

The overarching theme of the book is about phases of life, and they way the define a phase is as follows:  PHASE:  A timeframe in a kid's life when you can leverage distinctive opportunities to influence their future!

For those of us in student ministry it is easy to get stuck in a programmatic rut.

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Want to know the secret sauce so your kids will love Jesus into adulthood? #THINKORANGE

Want to know the secret sauce so your kids will love Jesus into adulthood?  #THINKORANGE

Me too!!  :)

Over the almost 20 years of doing student ministry, I have had the opportunity of being a part of a lot of student's lives.  And while I think I am an incredible youth pastor and do incredible ministry, I think there are about 5 or 6 students who are adults and who totally love Jesus where I had the honor of playing a huge role in their spiritual development through middle and high school.

There are many more students who have meandered in and out of my program during their adolescent career who are now adults and who love Jesus.  But when I look at this group of people and ask the question why they "made it" and so many other students simply fell off the rails, the answer is actually pretty simple.

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Can your own love for Jesus and learning actually have a negative impact your love for middle schoolers?

Can your own love for Jesus and learning actually have a negative impact your love for middle schoolers?

There are three things that I have found to be true in my life. And surprisingly, I have found that these three things turned out to be in conflict. They are:

1) I love Jesus 2) I love learning 3) I love middle schoolers

On the surface, these three things are every youth worker's bread and butter. It is these three foundational values that have launched us into this unique vocation. But what I have been wrestling with is that the combination of these three values have almost closed the door on good, long term vocational ministry.

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