Growing in Prayer: Meaningful Ways to Expand Your Prayer Life

What a privilege believers in Jesus have! We can come boldly to the very throne of God to make our requests! In Jesus, and through faith in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence. (See Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12.)

God tells us in the Bible that He sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers to help us pray. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He also moves us to address God the Father as “Abba” (Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is an Aramaic term for “Father” that is similar to our “Daddy” or “Papa.”  For the Holy Spirit to urge us to call God “Abba” means that through Jesus we have a personal, close, and affectionate relationship with the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe! Amazing!!

Have you spoken in this way to God yet? If not, give it a try! During your personal prayer time, address God as “Abba” or “Dad” or “Papa.” Of course, by using such a familiar term, we do not want to lose any respect for God; we do not want in any way to disrespect God. Rather, as one brother in Christ put it, we want to relate to God with familiar respect. Or, we might say, we want to relate to God with respectful familiarity. This is a high privilege our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us through His life, death, and resurrection.

In fact, I encourage you to actually say “Abba” out loud. Now an important first step in that direction is saying your private, personal prayers to God out loud. If you have never done that, give it a try! When God led me to begin praying out loud during my private prayer time, my prayers were transformed. All of a sudden they became more concrete. I didn’t just direct vague thoughts to God; I was putting those thoughts into specific words.

Praying out loud also made the personal nature of my relationship with God seem more real to me. Please understand: ever since the night God saved me in 1976, my relationship with Him was real. However, my sense of that reality heightened through praying out loud. When I pray out loud, it is like talking to another person in the room … because I am talking to another person in the room! God is a real Person and He is present. He is not far away somewhere “out there.” Through Christ I am in God (see Colossians 3:3) and God is in me (see 1 Corinthians 3:166:19). God is closer to me than any other person could ever be! Can I say again, “Amazing!!”?

And once you have taken that step of praying out loud by yourself, then take the step I mentioned earlier and address God, out loud, as “Abba” or “Daddy” or “Papa” … with the respect He is due. I am doing this in my prayer times. As I pray to Abba, one thing I am asking Him is that He would help me to better grasp His love for me. I am asking Him to help me experience His love in a deeper way, in a way that powerfully impacts me. Would you like to join me in making that request of God?

We learn from the Bible that asking God to help us grasp His love is a good and right thing to pray for. How so? Because we have record of the Apostle Paul praying for this very thing for the Ephesian believers. He asked “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Notice that not only does Paul pray for them to comprehend God’s love, he also prays for the strength and power to be able to grasp the love of Christ. We cannot know and experience God’s love on our own, through our own effort. We need divine enablement. We need God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp God’s love for us. Why? Because, as verse 19 says, the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” His love is so wondrous, so amazing that without God’s help there is no way we in our weak humanity can know it.

And if God grants us our request to experience His love more, we will be changed. We will be transformed. We will “be filled to all the fullness of God.” May God do that for us.

So join me in calling God “Abba.” Join me in praying out loud to our Father God. And join me in praying to experience His love in a deeper way.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Crafting Messages with Meaning

“Oh, you teach students? So what do you talk about? Video games, sports, relationships, respect? Or is it more like just babysitting them for a few moments when you can make them sit still?”

We have all heard, or will hear, these or other comments surrounding the messages we give to students. These comments aren’t all out of ignorance or immaturity, but some can be rooted in missteps of those who went before us. We as youth leaders have an uphill climb when it comes to showcasing the legitimacy of student ministry, and we should own it when it comes to our teaching and leading.

Teaching students has to be one of our priorities (I will speak to other priorities in later posts), and one that cannot be treated as a second tier thought. I have witnessed many youth leaders casually offer up a five to ten minute message with little prep, less effort, and almost no comprehension of their audience. But to do that to our students, especially within this generation that is hyper-aware of our world, is a disservice and will ultimately leave students frustrated, disappointed, and wanting more. We must teach our students well, be informed on important topics, and help to train them as mature Christ-followers.

So how do we do that? Here are some tips I have learned throughout my time in ministry and I hope they afford you some insight on how to offer messages that help to push students to grow, take action, and reach their world.

Spend time preparing. 

We would think this is a no-brainer, but let’s be honest shall we? We have all had a week where we “haven’t had the time” and have thrown together a message or simply defaulted to a “game night” for our youth group gathering. I am not saying we cannot have those days or moments, that’s life, but that cannot be common place. We must spend time studying, researching, applying, and helping God’s Word relate to our students. The bulk of my time (outside of meetings of course) is spent studying and preparing for my messages. I want to have a thorough grasp of God’s Word and treat it with the respect it deserves. Putting the time in allows me to shape the message to my students and help them understand it.

Know your audience.

One of my biggest pet peeves of speakers is when they try to relate to the audience but it is clear they have no idea who the audience is or what they value. In order for you to produce messages that matter, you must know your students. Then as you are crafting your message and listening to the Holy Spirit, God will direct you in ways to speak specifically to them. So hang out with your students, learn what they enjoy, know their values, understand their dislikes, find out their favorite places to hang out, and uncover what is happening in their lives.

Use personal stories.

Don’t settle for someone else’s story or narrative. Use personal examples, tell stories from your childhood, be authentic about when you messed up. The more students can tell you are a real person, the more inclined they will be to hear you and listen to what you are saying.

Be a student of culture.

In order to craft messages that relate to students, you must understand who they are, what they value, what is important in their lives, and what is happening that shapes who they are. This means you should have a grasp of the music they listen to; the way social media is utilized in their lives; the topics and issues they are passionate about; and their view of life, church, and culture. In doing so, you will be better suited to speak to them and to how their lives are being informed and shaped.

Use humor.

Growing up I was not naturally funny. I mean I was a goofball but humor wasn’t something that I used in my talks or speeches. When I first started in ministry, I knew I had no humor so I would literally open every message with a joke from a 90s joke book that had nothing to do with my message, its points, or anything to do with that day. I just knew humor was a good thing, but I had no idea how to incorporate it. Let me say this: you do not have to be a comedian to relate to students, but being able to have fun and laugh will make you a better communicator. Use stories from your past, poke fun at yourself, laugh about a story you were reading in the news, find humor in Scripture. Humor will not only help you break down walls but it will also make your students see you in a transparent way. You have become authentic and real.

A quick side note: never, ever poke fun at a student from the stage. Doing so will alienate your audience, cause you to lose rapport, and your students will cease to trust you. Even if you have their permission, don’t do it because the rest of the audience may not know that the student gave permission.

Be passionate.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students say, “The speaker was good, but they just weren’t into it.” As communicators of God’s Word, we need to get excited about it. Show students the power of the Gospel. Let them see how you are working it out. Cast vision and excitement for what the Gospel can and will do. Students and adults alike should see our passion for the kingdom of heaven, and it should affect our teaching.


I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten ready to teach and I felt so ill-equipped and unprepared. It was terrifying. Each of those times I would pray earnestly seeking God’s direction and asking Him to speak through me, and He did. We serve a great and powerful God who doesn’t need us to communicate His Word, but chooses to use us as a tool to advance His Kingdom. Cover your message in prepare before, during, and after you speak. And understand that you will still be scared, but as a professor of mine once said, “If you ever take the pulpit without some sense of fear because you are communicating the holy Word of God, you need to not be behind that pulpit.”

Know who you are, who God has empowered you to be, speak boldly and passionately, and showcase the Word of God to your students and you will see students grab on and never let go.

Helping Students Deal with Tragedy

Tragedy can be defined as an event that causes great sadness, hurt, destruction, and distress, but the reality we must understand is that tragedy looks different in each of our lives. What might be a tragedy or crisis for one person will look different for another.

However, what we do know about tragedy is that our students are facing it more and more each day, and are emotionally connected to tragedy even if it does not directly affect them. Students today feel more empathetic and sympathetic to what is happening both within their own sphere and from a global perspective. Students understand more, they feel deeper, and they live in a heightened state of fear due to all the horrific events happening in our world.

Because of the emotions and connections, tragedies can be felt even when they aren’t experienced. Students can feel the effects of a school shooting in California or the tsunami that hit in Japan or a suicide in their school in very similar ways. What this means then is that we as their youth leaders, parents, pastors, and adults in their lives must be having very frank conversations about tragedy before, during, and after it happens.

I know this may sound overwhelming because there are moments when we will ask, “How are we equipped to talk about these tragedies, when we don’t even fully understand how to process them ourselves?” I want to offer a few helpful conversation tips, and then to give you some resources to utilize as well.

So how do we engage our students in the conversations surrounding tragedy? Here are couple of tips to help with those conversations:

Begin the conversation sooner than later. It is always better to be proactive than reactive. We live in a very fallen and broken world where we will hear about tragedies constantly on the news, social media, at school, or in a number of other capacities. Talk to your students as they grow and help them to see that our world isn’t perfect, that bad things will happen, but that God is still sovereign and in control.

Point your students back to God and Scripture. Whenever tragedy occurs, typically our response goes to either blaming God or asking God why. Having a good grasp on who God is, His plan for our lives, His vision of this world and our lives with Him, will allow for you to better love, care for, and walk with your students during tragedy.

I do want to say that in the midst of tragedy, do not simply toss out Scripture to gloss over the difficult moments. That tends to be a knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Many of our students know those Scriptures and understand them, but they still are processing and grieving. We need to give them that space, to empathize and sympathize with them, to listen, to love them, and to walk with them as you both look for answers and understanding.

Be available. Students want to be known and heard. Be willing to engage with them, and to go past the surface questions. Don’t settle for “fine” or “okay” as a response. Ask questions that generate meaning and depth of conversation. Instead of “how was your day” or “what is bothering you” ask something like, “what was hard for you today” or “what emotion was strongest for you today?” These types of open ended questions not only allow you to be available physically but show that you are emotionally and mentally present as well. Having someone they can talk to, just be with, and process with is a big part of caring for your students, so make sure to be available.

Look to grow in your own knowledge and understanding. Educate, educate, educate. In order to understand how to care best for your students, seek out resources and equipping to help you better care for them. Utilize some of the resources below, talk to your mentors or other youth pastors, read books, listen to podcasts. The more you know, the better equipped you are to care for your students.

Never minimize how your students are feeling or say that what they experienced isn’t a tragedy. We all feel and process differently, so don’t minimize the situation. This is a form of escapism because we feel ill prepared. Instead validate their feelings, help them to process, walk with them, and being willing to just listen and love them. The greatest gift you can give to someone who has experienced a tragedy is love and time. Be with them. Be wholly present and love them well. A great way to think about this is to ask yourself, “What would I want someone to do for me in a time like this?” Use that as the framework for how you engage with your students.

Build your resources. This is more than just your own knowledge and library. I would encourage you to network, know who the counselors are in your area, talk to the church about their resources, and consider what you can contribute as well. As you build your resources, you become better equipped to handle trauma and tragedy, and you will know when to refer out and seek additional help that may be needed.

Tragedy is a difficult conversation, but one that we must lean into in order to better care for our students. Don’t believe the lies that you are ill-equipped to speak into their lives. Your voice, presence, and love means more than you could ever know, and simply being willing to engage will help them grow and mature in their relationship with you, their peers, and Jesus.

Below are some articles and websites that provide a lot of insight and additional resources to help in your conversations going forward.  Thank you for walking these roads with your students.

Our Picks: 4 Podcasts We’re Listening to Now

I love listening to podcasts while I’m getting ready in the morning. Nick likes to listen to them while he’s on his way to work. They’re a great way to take time that is typically mundane and make it educational.

Today we are sharing some of our current podcast choices with you. We would also love to check out your recommendations. What is a podcast you’re currently listening to? Leave your suggestion(s) in the comments so we can check them out, and share them with others.

For those who love students…

Check out Youth Culture Matters, a podcast by the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. They feature a wide variety of topics, from “Navigating LGBTQ Issues” with guest Rosaria Butterfield, to “Why Youth Stay in Church when They Grow Up” with Jon Nielson. They focus on topics relating to students, and ask pertinent questions from the perspective of youth leaders, parents, and culture-watchers. We recommend listening through their past episodes, you may even find one that includes Nick!

For the ladies…

There may be some men who listen to The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey, but this podcast is all about following Jesus as a woman. It is hosted by author, speaker, and podcaster Jamie Ivey, who interviews a new guest each week. Jamie dives into both deep and lighthearted conversations with her guests that will make you think, laugh, and maybe even cry. I absolutely love listening to this podcast and always recommend it to my girl friends.

For those looking for honesty…

And a wide variety of topics, 30 Minutes with the Perrys packs a refreshing punch. These short, authentic podcasts feature Jackie Hill Perry and Preston Perry who discuss things like “Healing from Church Hurt” and “When You’re Afraid to Talk about Jesus.” They bring humor and raw honesty to each podcast as they look at topics from a biblical perspective.

For those looking to combine faith and culture…

Preston Sprinkle takes a fast and fresh look at topics relating to faith and culture in his podcast Theology in the Raw. Topics discussed include LGBTQ issues, sex, drinking, porn, immigration, racial tensions, guns, patriotism, and much more. Preston brings a wealth of knowledge and many intriguing guests to a show that will challenge your way of thinking and push you to understand what Scripture is saying and what it means for us as Christ followers today.

6 Tips for Avoiding Burnout

Ministry has a tendency to make you feel like you are always “on.” Have you ever felt that way before? Maybe it was the call or text on your day off, the late night email you felt you needed to respond to because it was from a parent or elder, or when you got stopped in a supermarket because you “work” at a church.

The reality we are faced with is that without healthy boundaries, we will run into burn out. If you do not have appropriate boundaries in place you can guarantee that eventually you will become frustrated, bitter, and ready to walk away. Feelings of being overwhelmed, always on call, and like there is no one who is safe for you is a hard place to be, so I want to offer some ways to set healthy boundaries to safeguard you, your family, and your ministry.

1. Set clear expectations. This goes for both your supervisor and your ministry context. Whenever you step into a new ministry position ask for clear parameters like these:

  • How many hours am I required to work?
  • How many hours do you want me in the office?
  • Do you offer comp time for retreats and trips?
  • How do you handle holidays?
  • How are after-hours calls handled?

These are just a few questions that will allow you to better take care of yourself and know what is expected of you. But I would say that you shouldn’t just ask questions but also set the tone for how you handle your time off. I have shared this with my supervisor and those on my team so they know. Here are some of the expectations that I shared when I started and continue to advocate for:

  • Friday nights are date nights. That means I don’t work on Friday evenings unless my wife and I talk about it. We will go to football games in the fall and meet with people when necessary, but I’m those instances we always have date night on a different evening. My staff and volunteers, students, and my direct report know this and they all honor it because we continue to talk about it.
  • I always advocate for using your paid time off. It is part of your salary, so make sure you use it. Let your supervisor know well in advance, but use your time off and advocate for it.
  • I would also say it is important to advocate for time to go off site to study and refresh. This isn’t time to necessarily do “work” but instead to make sure you are getting filled and refreshed.

2. Seek friends who don’t require you to wear your “pastor’s hat.” One of my favorite things about where I work right now is I have begun to build some really good friendships. One in particular stands out because it is someone close to my age who has served in ministry before. We were grabbing breakfast one day and he looked at me and said, “Nick, you don’t need to wear your pastor’s hat around me. I am a safe person, and we can just be good friends. If you need to put it on, that’s okay but you don’t have to.”

Man, what an amazing moment! I was blown away because all the weight and expectations were gone. But here’s the thing: I would never have thought to ask someone to let me do that before that conversation. Looking back now I would encourage everyone to find a friend like this. Find someone you don’t have to worry about having all the right answers with, to be able to be yourself around, and someone who will be able to offer sound and practical advice.

Also, as a quick aside, let me say don’t make this your spouse. You should already be sharing life with your spouse, but I am advocating for another person, a friend, someone with whom you can build a solid relationship. This isn’t supplementing or replacing your spouse, but instead giving you another outlet and friendship to help you in life.

3. Keep your days off as days off. God doesn’t require everyone else to take a sabbath and ministry leaders and volunteers to not have a time of refreshment with Him. A sabbath is a command to all of us. And I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure when God gives us a command we need to follow it… yes, even ministry leaders. So honor your days off. Try to stay off the phone and computer as it relates to work. Focus on your family, friends, yourself, and your relationship with God. Protect this fiercely and if they are getting overrun, speak up about it and ask your supervisor for advice and help.

4. Decompress. Find out how you best release and refresh. This has changed for me over the years. At some points when I was single it was going out with friends, or ordering a pizza and watching the newest war movie. As weird as it sounds now, my ways to decompress are cooking, reading an adventure novel, cleaning, or making candles. It helps me to focus, clear my thoughts, and accomplish something.

This will look different for each of us, but you should identify what it is in your life and then utilize it. Also, if you are married make sure to bring your spouse into this conversation. They need to know that you aren’t just retreating or disengaging but that this is how you find refreshment and restoration. Work together as a team to honor this.

5. Communicate. Let your supervisor and those close to you know where you are at. If you are struggling with various aspects of your job, if you are feeling overwhelmed, if you are feeling defeated, talk to someone. It is okay to share where you are at, and honestly it needs to be a consistent aspect of your life. Talk to people, tell them how you are doing, explain what is hard, share what has been really good. The more this becomes a part of our culture and lives, the more free and cared-for you will feel.

Now I know there are some in ministry who cannot go to their supervisor for fear of reprisal or being fired. I get it, I have been in those circumstances myself. If you cannot go to your supervisor, go to a mentor or close friend; even better if they are close because perhaps you can bring them with you to a meeting with your supervisor to share what has been going on.

When I first started out as a pastor, my mentor came along to my interviews and asked the hard questions and set the expectations the church should have for me. I will never forget how it felt to be advocated for and supported. That is what you need in your close friends and confidantes. Bring them in, share what is happening, bare your soul, and let them love and care for you.

6. Get a mentor. I have already mentioned a mentor here and previously, but this cannot be undervalued or ignored. We all need people who are pouring into us and pushing us to be better leaders and Christ followers. If you do not have a mentor, seek one out. If you have one make sure you are honestly connecting with and sharing your life with them. Seek advice, encouragement, direction, and the hard but necessary answers from them.