Archives For Discerning your students

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I Used to be Really Frustrated by Cry Night:

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a winter camp. Unbeknownst to me, there was a fixed spiritual rhythm to their retreat.  Over this three-night winter camp hovered the expectation of increased spiritual depth, culminating with some sort of significant moment or opportunity for response. I found out about this rhythm solely by accident.

I wanted to have an opportunity for response every time we were together. I wanted each session to carry its own weight and expectation for response. I crafted each session with very unique tactile ways to respond to what the Holy Spirit was doing. And I don’t mean to boast, but these were some of the most creative and brilliant sessions I had ever put together.

On Sunday morning the counselors had had enough. They could no longer hold in their frustration and confusion. In our morning counselor meeting I was finally confronted with this hidden expectation. “Our kids are really confused because you keep asking them to respond at the end of every session. Normally, Cry Night happens on Sunday night, and our kids are really concerned about what is going to happen tonight.”

At first this statement really caught me off guard. “Cry Night” was no longer a programatic inside joke of camp counselors, but part of the story for the actual students. Because these students expected to become Christians and respond to the Holy Spirit at a specific time and place they were unable to fully embrace other things God might have had for them.

Maybe Cry Night Isn’t That Bad:

As the speaker I was pretty frustrated with the camp and with the leaders for not helping their students process this change in spiritual rhythm. But now that I have some years away from this experience and my pride and ego have recovered from not being as warmly received as I thought I should have been, I see a silver lining from this experience.

These students, for better or for worse, counted on Sunday night of winter camp being the time of God showing up and rocking their world. This night had become legendary, and the expectation was that this winter camp would be the same, God was going to show up, and show up big–on Sunday night.

What a gift it is to be a part of a ministry that has set watermarks where students expect that God will show up. While many of us wouldn’t say out loud that we intentionally plan for cry nights, the truth is we work really hard to establish rhythms in our ministry where our students begin to count on God showing up.

In my youth ministry calendar, our winter camp is where we expect God to show up and rock our kids’ world. We also expect that on our mission trips to Mexico and Guatemala that God will show up in a big way. We have a summer conference that involves our entire denomination, and we expect God to show up in a special way there.

Each of these events have become legendary within our own ministry. Every time we have a Youth Sunday at church or a student baptism, it is a certainty that one of these events will get mentioned as the place where the student gave their lives to Jesus or made a significant commitment regarding their faith. And as we’ve retold the stories, the expectations have continued to grow. Now it’s in the DNA of our group to expect that God will show up at these specific events, so we actually pray harder and with more expectancy. Sure enough, we then see God show up in even bigger ways.

Being Expectant is the Key:

Ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened. Expectation seems to be the beginning of this exciting adventure of faith with God. Without expectation we are nothing more than people passing on a religious family tradition.

When I am expectant in my walk with God my eyes begin to scan the landscape for hints and traces of the Holy Spirit. As I lean in and strain my eyes even more, I am blown away at how present God is and has been. My faith expands, and I actually become more open to what God might have for me in my own life. By being expectant I ask, seek, and knock, counting on a response from God, and sure enough, there always is.

The growing edge for me, and for our ministry as we get ready to launch our Fall schedule, is to approach every youth group, every event and every conversation like it was Sunday night at winter camp, or Thursday night on our mission trip. I am counting on God showing up this year and grabbing hold of our students in a new and fresh way. I don’t necessarily think that every encounter will result in crying, but I am counting on every encounter being a place where God shows up and students have an opportunity to respond.

May we be reminded this year that we serve a living God who longs to meet, redeem, transform, empower, and send each one of our students. And may we craft our ministry in such a way we expect our students to experience this reality every time we are together, not just on Cry Night!

Stethoscope

It seems like loneliness, anxiety, and depression are becoming hallmark issues in the lives of our students.

In every context I find myself, with every youth worker I talk to, these three issues seem to be at the top of the felt needs list among adolescents today.

I know that the reasons are varied, and the severity range is all over the board.  But what if there was a ministry solution that was actually Good News to our students who are struggling with this trifecta?

With all the gazillions of ways for students to be connected, every one of them has proven to do the exact opposite.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, were opportunities to share life with others, but quickly transitioned into simply another venue for students to compete socially.  Who has the most likes, favorites, comments.  Who was or wasn’t tagged or cropped from a photo or status.  And in just a matter of years, all of these social media applications have proven to be more about imprisoning our students and forcing their real selves into hiding.

Now, the best option students have to share their innermost thoughts is through this garbage app, YikYak;  an anonymous, twitter style app that is based on proximity.  It is heartbreaking to hear our students celebrate the shallow victory of getting a 100 uplikes, or whatever its called.  Our students have trained themselves on social media to redefine intimacy and authenticity, and in the process are lonelier than ever before.

The Church really is good news:

Humans were created and designed for intimacy.  Intimacy with God and intimacy with one another.  Sin and rebellion caused shame to rule the day, and forced us to hide from God and from each other.  This is how the entire world operates.  But as Christians we are called to be on a totally different trajectory.

In Romans 12, Paul declares that we are the body of Christ.  As Christians, we no longer need to compete with one another for status.  We no longer need to throw other people off the bus to prove our own worth.  Rather, we need to celebrate that we are all unique and special, valued in our own right.  And as fellow Christians we not only all have value, but we actually belong to each other.

We celebrate with those who celebrate, we mourn with those who mourn and we are called to carry each other’s burdens.  What a true testimony of God’s love and grace if our version of “witnessing” “being a city on a hill,” and “evangelism,” was no being an obnoxious mirror to our communities of they ways they don’t measure up, but if we were an empathetic embrace?  If we modeled transparency, authenticity, and humility.  If we didn’t count people’s sins against them, the same way God doesn’t count our sins against us?  (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Our students are dying:

Our students are dying on the inside, and too many are actually taking their own lives in desperation.  We, as the church, have the medicine this culture needs to cure loneliness, anxiety, and depression.  But it will cost us our self righteousness and hypocrisy.  It will cost us emotional space as we simply don’t tolerate or even forgive others, but that we model Christ’s love for us and be kind and compassionate, walking in the way of love!

May we be generous with ourselves and share them with others, so the world will know that we are made for intimacy, and the church is actually the best place to be truly known, loved, and cared for.  (And if those aren’t the hallmarks of your ministry, then I think you might be missing the honor it is to truly share good news to students who desperately need it!

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I have just recently presented one of the most challenging classes eve called “Preparing to Parent your Adolescent.”

For this class I used every tool at my disposal; my 17 + years of ministry experience, access to the personal libraries of all our pastors on staff, and input from my colleagues. As I looked through over 40 years’ worth of books and resources, I landed on three that have shaped me the most and became the core of this class:

Understanding Your Young Teen, by Mark Oestreicher, Hurt, by Chap Clark and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity, by Reggie Joiner.

All three of these are must-reads for parents, youth workers, and those who interact with and love students. If you haven’t realized it yet, adolescence is a complicated and challenging process with a seemingly-unnatural amount of variables that play into the change from child to adult.

The Problem:
Adolescents are in the process of becoming their own people and making their own choices, which means that many of those choices will be different than yours.

You can go crazy trying to find some book, some remedy, some nugget that will give you the right tools to ensure the teen in your life grows up to love Jesus. For the better part of my career, this is what I have been trying to do. With every book, every seminar, every conversation with a parent or a student, I add to my list of to do’s that will help me and my parents pull this off.

The Solution:

As I have recently reflected again on how to consolidate all the information out there into something easy to pass on, I have come to the conclusion that there is really only one thing that is irreplaceable in the emotional and spiritual development of a teenager.

The answer was in a simple list in the beginning of Reggie Joiner’s book about some of the truths he wants to stay focused on. This is what he says:

“My children need to know I will never stop fighting for a right relationship with them.”

That is it. Of all the steps, of all the values, of all the to do’s, at the end of the day, I think that fighting for a right relationship with your kids is the most important. Everything else will kind of work itself out. There will be great years and there will be awful years. But parents who fight for a right relationship will be ones who will have a lifetime of relationship and influence in their kids’ lives.

It is so simple, so easy to understand, and yet it seems to be pretty challenging. I think this is how most spiritual truths are. We want complexity so we can justify our failed attempts. But something simple like fighting for right relationship puts the burden on us and not the “system” or “steps.”

May you love the snot out of the teenagers in your life and own the relational burden of making things right!  Fight on!

Soldiers drowning woman with millstone tied around her neck

I am working on a little project and would love your help.  I have been wrestling with this question:

 “What are the biggest sins / obstacles holding back our students from running after Jesus?”  

At first glance, when I think of this question, I immediately go to behavior management and think that it is drinking and sex.  If our kids would just say no to the two deadly sins of student ministry, then they would have no problem running after Jesus.  But the more I drill down, the more I am convinced that there is so much more going on in the lives of our students, and even more in their hearts.

I am trying to come up with a list of some of the major sins / obstacles for both guys and girls that suffocate them spiritually.  Here is the beginning of my list.  I would love to know what you think.  Especially if you are a woman.  I have talked with my wife and some other women in student ministry to help round out the list, but I know it is still incomplete.

FOR GUYS:

  1. Passivity
  2. Pornography
  3. Anger
  4. Video Games
  5. Zero relational capacity
  6. Crudeness
  7. Self Absorption

FOR GIRLS:

  1. Anxiety / Depression
  2. Gossip
  3. Comparison
  4. Body Image
  5. Mean Girls Lifestyle
  6. Performance
  7. Insecurity

This is just the beginning of the process for me.  I would love / need your insight to make this a better list.  Would you be willing to take one second and simply add to this list, push back on this list, and together we can help our students wrestle with the more underlying issues in their lives, so they can run more fully after Jesus.

The fruit of Social Media

October 20, 2014 — 3 Comments

 

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I am not going to lie, I love me some Facebook.  And it turns out loving Facebook works well, because only old people are on it now.  Where there was one Facebook, there is now Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and the lowest form of social networking, YikYak.  The longer I work with students the more I am seeing the lasting ramifications of social networking overtaking actual human interaction, and what I see is startling.

Like all things we invest our time and effort into, there will be fruit.  If we eat right and exercise, we will be more fit.  If we practice the guitar or the keytar, you will be able to be a rock star, or at least a studio musician.  If you are in the habit of sharing life and being vulnerable with people, you will develop deep friendships, and if you actually spend time in reflective prayer, the depth of your faith and intimacy with God will deepen.  These are facts.

For the amount of time our students, as well as everyone in the inter web, including you and me, there are bound to be consequences.  We reap what we sow, and all of this investment is reaping some pretty awful fruit.  I am sure that for as many people as would try to make a list of some of the fruit that comes from this investment in Social Media, there would be as many different lists.  But since this is my blog, I thought I would throw out my two cents.  And I would love to know yours.

As I see it, these are the three main fruits of a life invested in Social Media:

1) Passivity:  Life is not longer lived, but rather observed.  The students I work with are paralyzed to actually take risks and commit to activities for the fear of missing out on other activities.  They actually think they are caring for the world and helping the poor because they “like” something and they are superstars if they actually repost it.   Life can not be lived behind a computer screen.  Life is meant to be lived interacting with people, interacting with your surroundings in your context, and I would even say, meant to be lived outside.  Being so connected to Social Media, to our phones, to our news feed, we end up being totally unproductive, enjoying the exploits and adventures of others rather than having adventures of our own.

2) Cruelty:  It has been this way since the original IRC chats from the early 90’s.  What we are willing to say via text, tweet, chat, whatever is always more cruel then any face to face interaction.  What is even worse is when small groups of friends use their time together, not having adventures, exploring the world around them, but rather simply reading through news feeds, judging the people as they scroll.  This is not fundamentally different then the chat experiences of the past, except that, now most interaction is done through social media, and less and less done through actual face to face contact.  And this means that the actual rhythm of how we talk, interact, and view the world is one of judgement and cruelty.

3) Idolatry:  Students, and might I even add, myself, are addicted to Social Media.  It is not simply what we do to connect with others, it isn’t how we get our news, and it isn’t just a tool to communicate our thoughts.  It is an idol that we worship.  It is an addiction that can not be mastered.  Watching students try at all cost to find ways on line while we travel internationally is like watching an addict hankering for a fix.  Social Media is a god to many people.  For us old enough to remember life before, we can see how this idol is simply a poor echo of the deeper friendship and relationships that can be had with true time and effort.  But for our students, this shallow version of interaction is all they know, and worse, it is their God.  They worship this idol, they tune the rhythms of their life around this idol, and will do whatever it takes to serve it.  To the detriment of their real relationships, and even their relationship with God.

Where do we go from here?

If we can’t beat them, join them doesn’t seem to be working.  Is there another way in which we can help our students balance their social media lives?  Or is that like saying cars have ruined community and there is no going back?   What is a realistic way forward?  Is this a battle worth fighting?

Man, do I feel old.  What are your thoughts?

 

blue-door-feet-598005-o90% of your students are going to walk away from Christianity and the Church after High School?

There has been a lot written lately about what is going on with our students and why are they leaving the church in record numbers after they graduate from college.  It seems to me that this is a problem that has been around forever, or at least since I graduated from high school.  (Back when Pearl Jam was King!)

What would it look like if we quit wringing our hands about this awful statistic and accepted this as reality.

Everything I have read says that part of the adolescent journey is separating their identity from their family and faith of origin and develop an independent identity.   This process of individuation is understanding who they are, where they belong, and if they matter.  And these questions can not be done under the thumb of their parents, or their parent’s youth pastor.

So, If 70% to 90% of my students are going to push back from the faith of their childhood during late adolescence, then what is my response going to be?

It seems like blaming the church, youth ministry, the culture, whatever doesn’t move this conversation forward.  Maybe there needs to be a different framing question to move this conversation forward.  Instead of asking, “Why are so many students leaving the church?”  Maybe a better question is, “Why are so few students returning to the church after they become adults?”

If it is a known fact that so many of the students who wander through the doors of my student ministry are going to bail on the church and their faith for part of their adolescent development, then I think my job is to create a ministry that leaves these students with a picture of the church and faith that is worthwhile to come back to when they are ready to be adults.

The question that has been shaping my ministry over the past few years has not been how to make sure kids don’t bail, but rather, are we painting a picture of the christian faith that is worthy of adulthood.    I think the story of the prodigal son is a great starting point for figuring out how to give our students space to rebel and space to return.

May we have the heart of the prodigal’s father

With all my heart, I want to model the heart of the father who loves his students, who longs to do life alongside his students, who will make space for students to bail, who will wait with anticipation on the edge of the property for them to return, and who will welcome them back with open arms and no judgement.

Our students deserve a picture of mature Christian faith that is compelling and complex enough to make it worthwhile for them to someday return to when they are done rebelling and pushing away from their childhood identity.  We can not make our faith smaller and easier to swallow as we lock down our students in fear of rebellion.  Rather we love them extravagantly and give them space to walk their path, the one that Jesus has gone before them as the author, pioneer, and perfecter of their faith!

How would your youth ministry look if you asked a different question?  What would it look like if you were less concerned about them wandering away, and more about making the christian faith a viable option in adulthood?

May we continue to have the heart of the father as we watch with broken-hearts our students wander away, and ever hope for their return.

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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.

I have found that for the students who are still loving Jesus into adult hood, they share three ingredients in common.  The combination of all three almost guarantees that a student will actually grow up and follow Jesus into adulthood.  2 out of 3 there is still a decent shot, but the stats fall off rather quickly.

So, if you want to know the secret sauce for kids to love Jesus into adult hood, they need to have all three of these ingredients:

1)  Their parents must love Jesus as adults.

This sounds more simple than it really is.  Most parents in and around the church are “religious.”  But passing on religion does not work.  Being good, or valuing good things, even spiritual things is vastly different than having parents who love Jesus, who have been transformed by the Holy Spirit and who understand their identity and value in the Kingdom of God.  Parents who love Jesus model their faith and bring it to life for their kids.  Kids have amazing BS detectors.  The right words will not cut it.  Kids will always take on the values of their parents, not their spoken ones, but their internal ones.  So if you want your kids to love Jesus, then you need to love Jesus.

2) Their parents must stay married.

This doesn’t mean that divorced kids have no shot at loving Jesus into adulthood.  But parents who stay married add stability and structure to a kid’s life that highness their self-esteem and value.  Kids naturally equate God to a gigantic version of their parents.  So if your parents provide little stability, if they can’t be trusted, and add insecurity to their life and world, then God will be the larger version of that, and making the leap to trusting their Heavenly Father with their lives is very difficult.

3)  They must be connected to Christian community.  

Our Christian faith is meant to be lived in community.  I get making your kids show up at youth group seems like a losing battle.  But it is only in a diverse community like church and within youth group, that students can work out their faith, grow in their understanding of God and be confronted with people who are not like them and have to learn to love others the way they love themselves.  Parents alone can not be the only spiritual influence in a child’s life.  The Sticky Faith people say it is 5:1.  5 adults to 1 kid.  And what better place to find 5 other adults who love Jesus and model that for your student.

Thankfully God is gracious:

Thankfully, God is gracious and doesn’t make transferring faith to our kids into something this objective.   The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of our students and will move freely, partnering with our best efforts, and often despite our broken lives and promises.  This is good news.  But before you simply shrug off these three ingredients because they don’t define your life or your kid, please reflect on this proverbial wisdom.

The overwhelming number of students who love Jesus into adulthood are the students who have been connected to our student ministry.  But I have had tons of students who have been connected to my student ministry at one point or another.  The difference maker for most of these students were the ones who came from intact families combined with parents who genuinely loved Jesus.

May we as parents, volunteers, youth workers strive to be adults who model our love for Jesus to our students, who provide safety and stability and community so that they too many have the best chance possible to love Jesus into adulthood!

Everyone Says Numbers Aren’t Important:

Whatever!  Everyone wants to grow their ministry and expand the kingdom of God.  Some times it is true that our egos get in the way and our motives are not entirely pure.  But at the end of the day, most people in student ministry are doing what they do because they love students and their hearts break for them.

Everything about the DNA of a youth worker is wrapped up in walking through life with students helping them connect to Jesus Christ.  At our best moments we want as many kids to come in contact with the saving, redeeming, healing, and transforming work of Jesus Christ.  Practically, this looks like trying to increase the numbers of students that can be impacted.

There Are Plenty of Short Term Options:

For better or worse, in my best moments or my worst, trying to grow numerically is always in the back of my mind.  I have done pretty shameful things to try to boost my numbers.  Some have worked great and others have flopped miserably.  For me, any short term numerical gain always seemed to fade.  There are many reasons for this short term blip.  But the biggest reason is that I simply put a ton of effort into an event or two for the simple attempt to inflate my numbers.

You are probably in a better and more whole place in your walk with God and would never be so petty to try and increase your numbers for personal gain, but often I am not.  Thankfully over the years God has continued to refine me and heal me as he has continued to grow my heart for students.  And as He has done this, my heart to increase the size of our group has never gone away.

With the internet we now have access to thousands of clever ideas to grow our groups.  Assuming our hearts are in the right place and we are striving to connect with more and more students, there are some great tricks, gimmicks, and structures that will allow you to grow your group numerically.

But most of these ideas will work in the short term, unless there is a dramatic change in systems or straight up hand of God, most groups will settle back to their average size.  For me, I have found a sure fire way to grow my youth group for the long haul.  It isn’t with gimmicks, it keeps my ego in check, and it actually cares for the larger church.  My trick to grow our student ministry is to invest heavily in our children’s ministry!

The Best Long Term Strategy is to Invest in Children’s Ministry

There are few things more depressing that working hard all year and to watch God bless your ministry as your numbers grow and kids come to faith, only to watch it all disappear when the seniors graduate and are replaced by a freshman class of 1.  Or when a group of solid 8th graders move up to high school and you welcome in one or two 6th graders.

The future of your student ministry is not found in your good looks or charisma.  While those are important, it is the base of students who come through every year that allow for the critical mass to have a vibrant and healthy ministry.  When these graduates of children’s ministry are already on board with the church and with the ministries of the church, the transition into youth group is a normal and natural one.  When their parents are already locked in then you are golden!

Instead of taking this transition for granted, it will actually serve youth workers well if they see children’s ministry as their farm team and put in some time and effort to help develop these kids and build relationships with their parents.  Whether the children’s ministry is great and exciting or struggling, any investment a youth worker makes in it will come back 10 fold.

5 Easy Ways to Invest in Children’s Ministry as a Youth Worker:

1) Become Friends / Partners with the Children’s Ministry Director:

I have no idea about the church you minister in, but I do know that children’s ministry workers/directors come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are naturally great friends and some will take a movement of God to knit your hearts together.  Thankfully the job of a youth worker is to connect with students, and students are the most difficult demographic to win over.  View your children’s ministry director as a student that must be won over and do it!  This person has more influence than you know and being on their good side will be mutually beneficial.

2) Attempt to Make the Transition as Seemless as Possible:

From birth through elementary school, the children and their parents at your church are used to relating to the church and church workers in a certain way.  Sometimes those are good rhythms and sometimes they are unhealthy.   Now that you and your children’s ministry director are such good friends, you can now partner with them to help the kids who they have poured their heart and soul into for the past 10 years make the transition into your program.  These people are invested and want the transition to succeed, so partner up and do it.

3) Be a Champion of Children’s Ministry

Many youth workers feel under-resourced and under-appreciated so we spend most of our time lobbying and fighting for our own programs, our own budgets, and our own space.  But all that does is entrench our thinking and seeing other ministries as competition.

When youth workers champion children’s ministry and help elevate it as a ministry of high value, the message that gets communicated is that all children are of high value.  Students just happen to be older children.  By loving children’s ministry first, it will actually build good will among the children’s ministry team and soon they will be championing your ministry.  Children’s ministry and student ministry are truly partners in the faith development of children.  By shaping it this way, you have doubled your team and your influence.

4) Have Your Students Help in Children’s Ministry

Students in our ministries need help to see that they are not the center of the universe.  By helping students plug into children’s ministry we have an opportunity to help shape their spiritual formation by putting their life and faith in the context of a church family.  There were people who poured their lives into them, and now they get to pour their lives into others.

On top of the valuable spiritual formation that happens when students help, it also elevates the children’s ministry and adds life and fun.  Children are so impressed and think it is such an honor when the big kids help out. They think they are so cool and many have reflected how they couldn’t wait to be in middle school so they could now help.  This added life improves children’s ministry and paints a picture for parents and the church that children’s ministry is of high value and student ministry isn’t always just a money suck.

5) Help Expose Your Children’s Ministry People to the Larger Children’s Ministry World.

Finally, as youth workers, many of us have had great opportunities for educational, spiritual, and professional development.  There are great conferences out there like Youth SpecialtiesSimply Youth Ministry, and Orange which do an amazing job of inspiring and equipping youth workers.  Think of how much better we do our jobs now that we have some fresh ideas, fresh inspiration, and a break from the headache of our job.  Why should we have all the fun?

In fact, there are opportunities out there for children’s workers, and this year I am ponying up the money to take my entire team.  My team of four exceptional, hardworking women who have faithfully served our church for years have never been to a conference before.  How great will it be when they have their socks knocked off by the music, the speakers and the seminars?  How much better with our ministry be as they become inspired and equipped?

I am sure there are great conferences out there.  The one we are choosing to go to is the Orange Conference in Atlanta in April.  If you register today and tell them, Ben sent you, you will get to for half off!!!  Ok, that isn’t true, but there is early registration prices and scholarships available.

If your heart to increase the numbers of students who are connected to your ministry so that more and more people can experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ, then bribing is a great place to start.  But for long term growth and health, investing in your children’s ministry is a solid strategy.  Hope to see you in ATL!

Have children’s ministry people have the same opportunities.  This year I am taking my children’s ministry team to Atlanta.  My team of part time children’s ministry workers are moms who faithfully serve our children.  They have never been!

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This last weekend I took my incoming seniors away on our annual Senior Road Trip. This is the kick off for our intentional Senior Confirmation program that is a year long investment in our oldest and often, our most burnt out students. The purpose of this trip is to build community, inspire leadership, and solidify faith as they launch into adulthood.

This year one of the elements was to watch Remember the Titans and have a discussion on leadership. To my horror, that movie is already 15 years old. For me, who is old and been at this a while, 15 years is recent. But to our students, this movie couldn’t be more dated. Although they enjoyed watching a young Hayden Panettiere and Ryan Gosling.

Thankfully,for as dated as the movie is, it is such a compelling movie that it held their interest for most of the 2 hours. As we watched this movie as a group and discussed afterward, there was one simple point I wanted to drive home:

Unless our student leaders take up the mantle and vision of what our ministry can be, we will simply be just an average, run of the mill student ministry. But if they embrace and own the vision, they will be the anchor in making our ministry great!

In the movie, Denzel Washington’s character, Coach Boon, had a very clear vision and plan for his team. He had an awful situation he was handed with incredible racial tension and politics from the administration, parents and from kids. Despite these obstacles, he went forward with his vision and leveraged all of his leadership capital to create an environment on his team, where this dream could be realized.

But all of his dreaming, all of his hard work, and all of his pouring out his guts into this program and into his students, the team was still divided, selfish, and impotent. It wasn’t until the two leaders of the team actually decided to lead. In the turning point in the movie, when Gary Bertier leveraged his status and political capital to come down on one of his white team mates, and Julius laid down an incredible hit on one of this black team mates, followed up by the two leaders embracing. Ok, they hit each other and yelled, but that is the boy version of embracing.

From that point on, this program was no just Coach Boon’s. It was the students.’

I found myself getting emotional a little bit with our students during the discussion, because for the first time in a long time, I had a way to express to my students my heart and dream for them and for our student ministry. But I couldn’t just express my dreams, I also had to express my anxiety and fear because my heart for our students can not move forward unless my seniors embrace it and own it. What a scary thing to realize that our leadership only goes so far.

For our ministries to be great, we can only control what we can control, which is only the environment where ministry can happen.

It isn’t until our student leaders, in our case, our seniors step up and leverage their status and political capital to lead by example and model deep and inviting relationships, and an authentic and active pursuit of Jesus.

My desire is to have a great student ministry! Not great numerically, but great in its impact for Jesus and his Kingdom. Great in the way it models the household of God, and great in the ways that our students run after Jesus in a fully authentic way. This is my dream and I will work until I die to create environments that allow this happen. But this can only truly come into fruition if my seniors embrace this vision and make it their own. Please, oh please, class of 15, don’t settle for a cliquey, run of the mill youth group, but embrace all that God has for you and for our ministry! Leverage your time, your relationships, and lead your peers to the feet of Jesus our King!

Let’s Do This!

051912-MLB-Cleveland-Indians-PI_20120519231611104_660_320I 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.

I am watching this alarming trend among my good friends who are youth workers.  They think that clever programs and graphics with witty names draw kids to youth group.  Worse, some actually think it is their teaching.  While clever programs and solid teaching are vital for solid ministry, it is the hidden hours of connecting with students individually, seeking them out, listening to their stories, building memories doing silly things, goofing off before and after events, and mostly remembering the little details of their life that allow them to be seen and cared for.  And when students feel seen and cared for, then they are willing to engage in a program and even let their guard down enough to wrestle through the intimate and dangerous issues of life and faith.

As you gear up for your fall program, work hard to have epic games, clever videos, and sassy graphics.  Knock your program out of the park!  But DO NOT NEGLECT THE THINGS YOU DID AT FIRST!!

Make contact with those kids, see them, love them, build friendship with them.  Then and only then will your hopes and dreams for your program be realized!

Happy Fall Kick Off!

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How he loves!

For as long as I can remember, everyone in ministry has been trying to communicate to this broken world that there is a God and that this God loves them very much.  So much, that He gave His only son to pay for our sins so that we can be in restored relationship.  And in this restored relationship, we can now be fully embraced by God and live in the spotlight of his love and affection.  We sing our anthem, “How He Loves,” and our congregations and students swoon and weep as they celebrate over and over how much God loves them.

And the warriors of transforming God’s image from a one of judgement and wrath to love!  In fact they have won so much that nobody in the western world would even consider that there is a God who has anger or wrath.  Ok, maybe some old skool boomers, and for sure some old skool boom catholics.  But any and everyone else has a one dimensional view of God and that is that God is Love!

Instead of our culture reciprocating God’s love and returning His affection, we have become spoiled brats.  

I recently was part of an intervention between some parents and their out of control daughter.  She had been failing out of school, experimenting with drugs, and become toxic to her entire family system.  In an evening blow up, I was called in as reinforcements.  What sparked this outburst you ask?  The parents decided that the first step of regaining order back into their home, was to take the phone away.  NOOOOOOOO NOT THE PHONE!!

Students’ phones are the only thing in their life that seems to matter to them.  And loving parents who ooze love and grace to their kids and provide everything they could ever need or want, doesn’t seem to reciprocate respect, love, or kindness.  Instead, when the parents step in, for their kid’s own good, they through a huge temper tantrum.

Most of us our as spoiled and as entitled as the students we work with. 

This sounds like a lot of Christians I know.  We love that God loves us, and that means that he is to never stop pouring grace and blessing on us.  But when that gravy train ceases either by God’s providence, or our dumb choices, we freak out and throw in the towel.

Love being received by students doesn’t cause them to change their life.  And this is true in my own life as well.  But what does cause life change is when we love somebody, we actually want to be more like them.

Think about your students for a second.  Whoever is the alpha in a group at school or in youth group, the rest of the group tries to become more like that person in order to win their affection.  Or, in a more noble way, think of how you love the person you are dating or married to.  Because of your love FOR them, you long to to find out what pleases them and blesses them and work towards that end.  You don’t sit around receiving love FROM them and then return the favor.

A fundamental change in focus:

If we really want our students to experience life change, then I think we need to change the focus of our ministries.  Everyone gets that God loves us, but nobody gets that we are to love God in return.  Maybe that needs to be the focal point of our ministries these days.  What matters is not that you believe that God loves you or not, what matters is whether or not you love God.

Life change happens when we love!  Now when we are loved.

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It should have been a bust!

For months, I have had a buys backpacking trip on the calendar. This one event has become my favorite event of the year. We take guys away for a weekend and have an adventure in creation where they get to unplug and be guys!

But this trip almost didn’t happen. For a number of reasons my numbers went from 20, to 15, to 10, and all the way down to 5 on the day of the event. My soul was crushed. Once again I got to feel the angst of planning a party that no one wants to come to.

But instead of throwing in the towel, I decided to forge ahead, but with a new plan, and a new purpose.

The more the merrier

With a wounded heart, I decided to make this at least make this trip a win for me. So I strong armed all my guy youth staff I could, then reached out to college kids who were back for the summer, and filled up our spots.

With a few phone calls, this trip went from a “high school guys’ camping trip” to “Ben’s favorite peeps over 4 generations of student ministry” trip. And while this trip wasn’t exactly what I dreamed up at the beginning of the year, it was a trip that actually filled my soul and accomplished way more then I could have ever expected.

Guys need Men to look up to:

On this trip I had my 5 high school kids, then 3 college guys, then 2 post college guys, and 3 adult men at different stages of life.  Goofing around was great.  Day hiking peaks was great. Eating gross freeze dried food.  And dealing with the gas that followed.  But the biggest highlight was sitting around in a circle on our last morning together.

Every guy shared a verse in scripture that is meaningful to them right now, and the responses were amazing.  Not amazing because so many guys are sold out for Jesus, but amazing because every guy shared in a way that was deep and authentic.  The sharing ranged from fully doubting faith, to feeling like God is calling them into ministry.

As everyone shared, I noticed an amazing thing taking place.  The high school guys were watching the college guys, who were watching the adult guys.  And by having guys to look up to, their current drama and angst was now placed in context.

After sharing, there was some organic conversation that arose between our high school kids and the adults as we hiked down the hill.  Instead of shame or guilt for their struggles, they were affirmed for their authenticity.  Instead of faking some idealized version of manhood, these guys got to see that doubt is a natural part of faith formation.

For the guys on this trip, and for the guys in my ministry, I am convinced more than ever, that the way through is by simply living life on life.  Guys need men older to look up to and guys younger to pour into.  When this happens, the smokescreens, apathy, and doubt can be part of the faith process and not simply roadblocks.

I am thankful for the older guys in my life.

As I reflect on this last weekend, I am so thankful for the older guys in my life that walked with me through all sorts of crazy seasons of life.  I am thankful that they modeled love for Jesus and a love for me.  My prayer for the guys on this trip is that they too would come to love Jesus and love one another.

I am thankful that our ministry has a number of guys around who are pursuing Jesus and willing to share their lives with these high schoolers.  For it is life on life where transformation happens.  And as we share life we get to wrestle through doubt, bust up smokescreens, and invite these younger guys into the wild adventure that is becoming a godly man.

Graduation

What do you want your graduating seniors to leave with from their time in your student ministry?

I used to have big dreams for my students when they graduated and moved on from my student ministry.  I wanted my students to be grounded in their faith, solid in their theology, disciplined in their life and life style, pure in their convictions, and ready to jump into college with a heart for ministry.  Their college pastors would be so impressed and would be able to launch my students into vital ministries to reach their college for Jesus.  Oh, those were some good dreams.

As I got older and a little more jaded, I lowered my expectations.  I wanted students who could articulate the gospel and who were ready to jump into college clear in their theology and disciplined with their convictions.  Maybe campus ministry wasn’t for everyone.  I was willing to let that go.  Oh, so jaded.  Hahaha

My dreams for my students are much more simple these days

I am still wrestling with this is a dream from God or a pragmatic approach lowering my goals to something I can actually achieve.  Either way, I have landed on a goal for my seniors that helps me work backwards and informs my student ministry, and keeps me full of hope and grace.  It is simply this:

I want my graduating seniors to have a positive experience from their time at church and exposing them to a faith that is worthy of consideration into adulthood.  

Everything I do for student ministry is to help students feel loved and valued by our church community.  Church is a place where students are seen and cared for, where they are given every benefit of the doubt, and they are loved and welcome no matter what.  This goes for them, their friends, and their family.  No matter their background, their lifestyle, their socio-economic class, their sexuality.  No matter what, they receive unending love and grace by me, my leaders, and the pastors at large.

The faith we lay out is a faith that is complex, deep, and transforming.  There is little room for flannelgraphs, bumper stickers, or slick graphics.  Faith in Jesus is some of the deepest waters you can swim in.  These deep waters are hard to understand and grapple with as a 14 year old, and a little less so as an 18 year old.  But our students need to not be fed simple spirituality that crumbles at the slightest push back from a professor, moral failure, or personal crisis.  These non easy answers are difficult on the short term, but will save their soul into adult hood.

I love Jesus and I want my students to love Him as well.  

The best way for this to happen is for our students to maintain a positive view of the church and have enough great touch points with Jesus that they would consider putting their trust in Him when they are adults.

As you get ready to launch your graduating seniors into the big, bad world, what is the legacy you want to pass on?  What is the main thing you want them to hold on to as they leave?  My hope for my seniors is a love for the church and a faith that is worth considering into adulthood.  You?

I think baseball is an amazing sport. On the surface, it is a simple game, hitting and fielding. But the more you dive into the game, the more you see the deep strategy, pitch selection, and the never ending statistics. Since my dream of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, I am now putting that pressure on my son. So, this last spring we signed him up for his first season of T-ball. It is quite an entertaining sight to watch a group of 5 year olds learning the game of baseball. The first season of T-ball is just that, learning the very basics. By the end of the season, this kids mostly know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and that is about it. But the foundation has been laid and a trajectory set for these kids to become legitimate baseball players and for my son to fulfill my dream of playing in the Bigs!

But, even more than my son playing professional baseball, my dream for him is to be a godly man who loves Jesus. And as he loves Jesus, to live a life that reflects that love in his personal life. As his personal life reflects his love for Jesus to live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father an his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.”

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As spring is fully upon us, and I reflect on our ministry and the students that have come through the doors this school year, I have realized that there are quite a large number of students who have come and gone and no longer part of our youth ministry community.  I get that sports, school, schedules, etc are the cause for a lot of this drop off.  But most of the reasons that initially caused students to drop off or fade away are no longer part of their reality.  They are now simply out of the habit.  So, the real question is, how do we get these students back in the habit of being part of our community?  Here is what I do: Continue Reading…

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As I have watched Frozen over and over and over, I have found myself approaching this movie from all sorts of different fronts.  But this last time I watched it I saw something I never saw before, Anna is the ultimate youth worker.

Anna is young and idealistic and pursues her sister (our students) with all of who she is.  She longs to be connected and share life and even though she is shut out from the bulk of her sister’s life, she has nothing but hope and good will for her sister.

Elsa is the classic student.  For whatever amount of personal pain and shut down they have experienced, their world is pretty egocentric.  She is special, in fact, the most special kid on the planet. And this uniqueness means that she is misunderstood and angst ridden.  She runs away to protect others, and really herself.

Even though Anna has been shut out and shut down, she always runs after her sister, always hopes for a restored relationship, and selflessly gives up her life for the sake of her sister.  And this selfless love, in the end actually restores relationship.

My hope is that my heart would be more and more like Anna’s.  

  • That I will always leave the safety and comfort of the castle, of the 99 and run after the one.
  • That I will not get bitter or disillusioned when my pursuit is not reciprocated.
  • That, in the end, I would actually gladly lay down my life, pour out my life over and over again so that by some possible means relationship would be restored; relationship with me, and mostly relationship with their Heavenly Father.

I love that there is so much to think about and process in this movie.  For me, this time around, I am thankful that God used it to touch my heart, to soften it, and remind me again of what I am truly called to do and be as a youth worker!

“Do you want to build a snowman?”

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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.  

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I love at attractional ministry as much as the next guy.  I love the hype, the big games, the thrill of the crowd, the dynamics of a full room.  In fact, most of how I judge my effectiveness in student ministry is by how full I can get the room.

But one of the pit falls of this approach is that us youth workers end up ministering to the “crowd” and not to the individual students.  As a crowd, students generally play ball.  They engage games, seem to engage in worship, listen quietly and give us adults the answers we want to hear in small groups.

This is all well and good and strokes our ego.  But my fear is that as we engage the crowd, we loose sight of the individual students, their stories, their issues, and their world view.

The more time I spend with students, I am convinced that students are more than rebellious teens, or broken in need of healing, but they are straight up lost.  They have no idea what end is up or who or why they ended up where they are or do what the do.

Even though they may play ball in our system, the truth is that their world view is so far removed from ours.  And if this is the case, the we must as the question, “What are we really doing as a student ministry?”

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My best “go to” game!

February 19, 2014 — 6 Comments

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Ok, it is Wednesday and you have been cranking out a semester and a half of youth ministry.  Are you looking for a simple and fun game that takes practically zero set up, engages the entire group, AND is actually pretty fun?  Then this is the game for you.  (I am not taking credit as this game’s inventor, I just love it and it has been my go to for over 10 years)  No, its not shuffle your buns, which is my, not fun, go to, game.  It is a game called:  CATEGORIES

SET UP:  Circle of chairs, pitcher of water, cup of water.  This game is great for groups of 10-30 or for large groups, simply divide into groups of 10-30.  Have everyone sit in a chair in a circle with one person in the middle.

THE OBJECT:  The object of the game is to simply not get splashed with water.

RULES:  The person in the center of the circle picks a category.  They could pick any category.  Some simple ones that can get you started are: states, subjects in school, subjects in school, baseball teams, candy bars, cereal, boy bands, people in the room.  Once a category has been called, the person in the middle tells me, the leader the specific item in that category.  (This keeps everyone honest)  Then I take the pitcher of water and pour some of it in the cup of water and give it to the person in the center.

GAME PLAY:  The person in the center calls the category:  Candy Bars!  Then goes around the circle so that everyone takes their turn naming a candy bar.  The people sitting down call out candy bars hoping to not say the one that the person in the center told the leader.  If they say “Snickers,” the item that was told to the leader, then that person gets splashed with water.   Or if someone repeats what someone else said they get jacked with some water as well.  Then the person who got splashed takes a turn as the person in the center.

That’s it!  Enjoy!

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One of the most important aspects to a balanced and thriving student ministry is having an intentional scope and sequence to your curriculum.  We must be intentional with what we teach and to use the limited amount of time we have with our students well.  And while many of you are thoughtful about your teaching and are biblically deep, contextually astute, and clever as all get out, there might be one significant area that gets left out.

I am sure that you would agree that our culture is getting more and more coarse.  Students are increasingly self absorbed and rude.  Maybe the truth is that you don’t even realize it anymore or have simply died to it.  Maybe you think that you will lose street cred if you push back against their entitlement mentality.  Or maybe you are satisfied that you can at last get them to say grace when you are all together for a meal.

As students become more and more isolated, they have fewer and fewer places in their lives where they actually have to consider others.  Their music choices, their movie choices, their food choices are all individualized.  Whatever they want whenever they want it is their instinct and highest value.  If at any time a student is done paying attention in a group, they simply need to plug in their ear buds, check facebook, and check out.

Why manners are important:

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