5 Quick Tips for Hosting a Great Christmas Party

With the holiday season officially beginning, many of us are probably preparing to host at least one Christmas party this year. Whether you’re hosting your own, a leader party, or a student Christmas party, we all know the pressure to have a good one that people enjoy.

Over my many years in ministry I have hosted multiple Christmas parties, some were better than others, and today I want to give you five quick tips to host a great Christmas party for students. These aren’t the only things that will make your party great, but incorporating them will help you in that direction.

Before I get to those points, I do want to highlight one extra tip that will definitively make this a great party: make it highly relational. This is a huge thing whenever you host gatherings like this. Find ways to leverage the time together to pour into and care for your students. This is a great opportunity to connect with students on the fringe, have conversations with students you haven’t connected with yet, to encourage and speak truth into students’ lives, and to laugh and fellowship together. Take the opportunity presented to you and use it to build into and care for your students.

1. Pick a theme.

It is easy to just say “we are having a Christmas party,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you choose a theme and announce and champion it to your students, it will generate momentum and a desire to be a part of the gathering. It makes it more fun, engaging, and invitational to your students and their friends. Here are a few ideas to consider for your theme:

  • Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Challenge everyone to wear an ugly Christmas sweater and hand out prizes for various categories (most likely made by a grandmother, most itchy, most unique, most likely grabbed last minute). When choosing who wins, involve students to either choose or judge who wins to make it more engaging.
  • Christmas Costumes. This one you can take in any variety of directions. You could do Christmas movie costumes, Christmas decades costumes ( i.e. 1920s or 1700s), retro Christmas costumes, or even Christmas character costumes.
  • Christmas PJs. Have everyone come to the party in their favorite Christmas pajamas. You can market this as wearing your favorite jammies, fuzzy slippers, and cozy blankets, and then have the evening be more relaxed and centered on fellowship and community.

2. Set the ambiance.

Ambiance enhances any gathering, but especially when it comes to parties and outreach opportunities. A quick, easy and no-cost way of setting the ambiance comes from simply playing Christmas music. Create a Spotify account and make a Christmas playlist for your gathering. I love to throw in some old school songs just to see how my students respond.

Also consider utilizing Christmas decorations and lights to make the setting feel more Christmasy. Simple decorations and lights add so much to a gathering and it shows intentionality to your students. It communicates that you care and value them, and that will make them want to invite their friends.

3. Have a gift exchange.

Gift exchanges are a huge hit for Christmas parties because it gives students an opportunity to receive a present. To help keep this cost effective, challenge each student to bring their own wrapped gift to the party. However, always make sure to have some wrapped extra gifts just in case a student doesn’t bring a gift. We never know why a student can’t bring a gift, and you never want a student to feel singled out or left out because they didn’t have a gift. This ensures everyone gets a present and feels valued and loved.

For the gift exchange itself you could choose from any number of different options, but here are a few fun ones:

  • A white elephant gift exchange. You can add in rules for trading gifts or just allow everyone to pass a gift to their right a few times.
  • Randomly choosing grades to go and pick a gift.
  • Playing rock, paper, scissors among the group and allowing the winners to go and get a gift. If you don’t win, you keep playing with different people until you do.
  • In small groups, have students sit in a circle and one at a time roll a pair of dice. Once someone gets doubles they can go and choose a gift. The group keeps playing until everyone gets a gift.

4. Provide some sort of food.

Food makes events much more personal and welcoming. A few fun food ideas for your party can include:

  • A hot cocoa bar with all the toppings.
  • A fresh-baked cookie bar with different Christmas cookies to choose from.
  • A Christmas dinner.
  • A Christmas dessert bar.
  • A decorate your own Christmas cookie bar.

This may feel like an expensive option for many youth groups, but if you don’t have a budget for this consider some alternatives. You can ask parents to provide different items. You could utilize the older generations and ask them to provide the items needed and even invite them to the party to increase inter-generational ministry opportunities. You could utilize announcements in church or in your bulletin asking for donations for the party. These ways of gathering supplies and resources will help offset the cost, afford you opportunities to champion student ministries, and allow you to engage with members of your extended community.

5. Focus on what is important.

Sometimes we can allow these parties to just be parties. A place of fun and games and food, but we don’t focus on what we should be focusing on. Students can and will attend Christmas parties outside of yours that will be a place for just those things. But your party should focus on the important things. That is not to say that you don’t have fun, eats lots of food, and play silly games. Do those things, but don’t forget why you are gathering.

You are gathering to celebrate the birth of the Savior and to help your students grow as disciples of Jesus. So highlight those areas during your party. Have small group time. Talk about Jesus. Have a Christmas message. Encourage and challenge your students in their faith. Don’t let this become just another party, rather be intentional with its focus and purpose and leverage those opportunities to enrich the lives of students with the Gospel message.

Quick Tips for Preaching in “Big Church”

For many youth workers the time to preach in “big church” is fast approaching as the holidays begin. Whether you are asked to preach because your senior pastor is on vacation or because you are part of the regular rotation, preaching is something we should revere and treat with respect. For our post this week, I want to share with you a few quick tips on how to preach well in church (and really anywhere) and how to allow yourself to be most effectively used by God to reach His people.

Be yourself.

Authenticity is key when you are preaching. Don’t try to be something you aren’t or to imitate someone else. Be the person God designed you to be and ask Him to work through you. God has specifically designed and equipped you to communicate His Word, so be yourself and allow God to utilize your gifts. Don’t try to be someone else, be who God made you and allow that to be the person who stands in the pulpit.

Know your material and practice.

This is something we should be doing regardless of where we are preaching or teaching. Before you preach make that you have studied your material so you present it well. Coupled with knowing your material is practicing. We all know how easy it is to lose your place or get distracted. Knowing your material and practicing helps to ensure that happens less and that you are able to recover easier.

Slow down and be intentional.

This is something I have been practicing for a long time. I’m a fast-paced talker, and often I feel pressured to get all of my material out in a set amount of time. Or maybe you just talk fast because that is how you teach students. When you are preaching, slowing down and showing intentionality will connect you more to your audience. This will also help you be more succinct and clear in your communication. Practicing this will help you grow as a preacher and allow you to communicate in a clearer and more direct manner

Treat the pulpit with respect.

This is something I don’t think we always are aware of, but as we stand in the pulpit (and honestly any time we teach), we must be aware of the privilege and weight that comes with teaching and preaching God’s Word. Too often the pulpit and office of authority as a minister of the Gospel is treated cavalierly, and we don’t afford it the respect it is due. The Bible tells us that those who preach God’s Word are held to a higher accountability because they are presenting the Word of God to His people and what they say has eternal ramifications. So when you enter the pulpit to preach, hold it in respect knowing that God has called you to present His Word to His people, and you have the honor and privilege of doing so.

Speak to all generations.

Often when we are afforded the opportunity to preach, people expect the youth pastor to speak like and speak to the young people. But we are in a unique place to speak to all generations because student ministry is truly about reaching multiple generations. There are students, parents, volunteers, and others that cross multiple generations which gives you an opportunity to reach all those generations when you preach. Don’t talk to just one or two generations or groups, but instead try to make your message applicable to all.

Don’t look to be inflammatory just because you can.

I need to remind myself of this. I get to preach fairly regularly at my church and have had the privilege of speaking on quite a few controversial topics and passages. I have often wanted to say things because I have felt passionate or wanted to push people to think critically by challenging their norms and perceptions. But to simply say something to be provocative is not the purpose for those who are preaching. Our purpose in preaching is to exposit God’s Word and help people grow in spiritual formation through God’s transformation. The Gospel is enough to challenge people, so let it do so. Look to communicate the Word of God and to challenge your people, but you do not need to make provocative or inflammatory statements in order to do so.

Remember that the focus should be on God, not you.

I will be the first to say that I know pride is a struggle within my own heart. I love when people say they like my preaching or that they have missed seeing me in the pulpit. But in the same way that positive comments can affirm me, negative ones can break me. The root issue in those moments is the pride within my heart because I have made it about me.

What needs to be the focus is simple: did God’s Word get shared, did you communicate it clearly and accurately, and was God glorified by what you shared? If we can answer yes to all three of those questions, we know that we have done what God has asked of us, and it shifts the focus away from us to where it should be–on God and God alone. When you stand in the pulpit or before a group, remember it isn’t your platform, but God’s. It isn’t about you creating brand recognition, but about pointing people to the King of Kings. It isn’t about the shoes you wear, but about the eternality of peoples’ souls that are at stake.

What are you most excited to be preaching about next? How do you utilize the opportunity to preach to best reach the people you are speaking to?

5 Lessons I Learned from COVID

The past couple of weeks have been difficult. I was diagnosed as COVID-positive after beginning to experience the majority of symptoms and it has truly been a difficult illness to contend with. I am exceptionally thankful for the vaccine as I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to deal with all these symptoms and more without the antibodies.

Two of the biggest symptoms I’ve experienced have been fatigue (both physical and mental) and loss of memory. As someone who is always moving and has had a relatively decent memory, this was difficult to deal with as it affected not only what I did at home but aspects of my job function as well. I tried to make sure I had communicated everything and remembered all I needed to pass to my team while I was home sick, but I quickly saw there were aspects I missed or simply forgot.

But through this season I began to see God working in my life and teaching me various lessons. Lessons I knew, but wasn’t always good at following. Today, I simply want to share with you five things I have learned, and relearned, during my time in quarantine, and I hope that these are an encouragement and a challenge for you.

1. Breaks are needed.

This is one of the first things I learned during COVID. My energy levels tanked and I wasn’t able to go from task to task like I used to. My mind couldn’t focus, my physical energy was depleted, and I couldn’t keep going. While I first lamented that my body wasn’t producing the results I was used to, I began to see how important breaks are in our daily routine. It was during those breaks that I could reflect and think about various topics. It was during those breaks that I could be present. And those breaks allowed me to find refreshment and encouragement.

When we are working in ministry we don’t often afford ourselves breaks even though we need them. And this period of quarantine has taught me to be better about pressing pause and taking time to breathe, refocus, and reflect. So make sure to take breaks.

2. Rest is necessary.

Even more than breaks, I learned the importance and need for rest. I have known this for many years and have even written about it. But if I am fully transparent, I struggle with this. I am a go, go, go type of person. I am always thinking about the task at hand and the next ones that are coming. Elise would tell you that I struggle with sitting still and relaxing, and that is very true.

In the ministry world I think this mentality affects us more than we care to admit. There is always something to do. Always someone to meet with or help. Always a lesson to give or conversation to be had. But we don’t always think about ourselves and the rest we not only need but deserve. My administrative assistant reflected to me that perhaps God was using this time to challenge me and force me to slow down and rest. And you know what? She was right. I haven’t had to handle all of the “work stuff” because I couldn’t. I stayed home from two weeks of youth group and went to bed early. I can’t tell you the last time I did that, but it felt good to rest and refresh.

God’s desire for those He calls to ministry isn’t that we kill ourselves doing it. But rather that we allow Him to sustain and work through us to accomplish His plan. But we can only be used by Him if we are keeping ourselves healthy and rested. God Himself rested multiple times both in the creation account and throughout His earthly ministry. And if rest is good for God it also good for us. Coming out of this time of isolation and quarantine one of the rhythms I want to be more intentional with is rest and time for refreshment, and I want to encourage all of you to do so as well.

3. It’s okay to ask for and receive help.

During this period of quarantine I had to ask for a lot of help, and if I’m being honest that was incredibly humbling for me. As someone who is a self-starter and tends to be prideful about being able to do things on my own, I had to learn to stop and ask for help because I couldn’t do things due to being in isolation.

But it was during this time that I saw my team rise to the challenge, take ownership, and surpass my expectations. It was humbling to ask, but in doing so I saw my teammates use their gifts and take larger leadership roles. It was a privilege to witness their skills and gifts be utilized and it was also a teaching moment for me as I learned to let go and get help. Going forward I am leaning by into the skills and talents of others and releasing more as I trust others to help and lead.

4. Letting go is necessary.

I’m not sure if you’re like me, but I like order and control. I like to know that everything will function well and that it will all follow a plan. But when you’re sidelined with COVID, your best laid plans go out the window. I had to call in favors, be willing to not be in control, and let go of the day to day managing of the ministry. It was hard and in the beginning it brought some anxiety and tension. But in letting go I was able to lean into trusting God with my time. In letting go I learned to not try and be the savior of the ministry. In letting go I was able to release the pressure that I had felt and truly rest in Christ and His sustainment and peace. Letting go brings freedom. Letting go builds trust. Letting go teaches you to rely upon God and let Him be the capstone in your life and ministry.

5. If it all relies on you, you’re in trouble.

Sometimes in our ministry roles we can put all the pressure on ourselves to make our programs and ministries succeed. It may not be something we consciously do but it may be reflected in our subconscious. Do you feel like a failure if the program doesn’t go how you want? Do you feel like you aren’t making a difference if only a few students show? Does a single negative comment deflate you completely?

I think these feelings and perspectives can come about because we believe we have to be the figure head and leader. But we also put unfair pressure on ourselves because we infer a savior complex upon ourselves. The truth is that there is only one Savior, and that isn’t me and it isn’t you. If we try to focus a ministry and it’s success on ourselves (whether consciously or subconsciously) we will fail. Instead we must be willing to release and trust both God and our team. In doing so we are releasing control and holding it in an open hand toward God rather than clenching our fists around the control we desire. So be willing to step back, release, and remember that it doesn’t rely upon you. You are just the ambassador and the mouthpiece for the Gospel and God wants you to release and rest in Him.

Speaking on + Equipping Students for Difficult Topics

Last week I was invited to share on the topic of justice with our young adult group at church. This is an issue that is near to my heart, and also one that can feel extremely intimidating. Speaking on topics that are challenging and culturally-charged usually isn’t our first choice. But if we are willing to step into these difficult discussions, we can equip our students with a godly perspective as they encounter them in their every-day lives.

Today I want to share some tips for speaking on and equipping students for topics like justice, with the hope of encouraging you to not shy away from challenging subject matter. It can be tempting to gravitate toward easy topics and tried-and-true lessons, but our goal should be to speak to our students where they are, approaching topics and issues they are encountering every day. May we equip our students to live Christ-like lives in all places where they find themselves, including and especially our current cultural moment.

Always seek Scripture first.

I challenge students to take their questions and concerns to Scripture first. How does the Bible address the issues we encounter? How does God speak about the things we are dealing with in the twenty-first century? What can I learn about God’s heart from His word? As student leaders, we shouldn’t only model this in our lessons, we should encourage students to do their own research and study, and not just take our word for it.

Topics that are culturally relevant or popular can be easy to research online, through news stories, and from podcasts. There is no end to the number of voices speaking into things like justice, and you can find many different perspectives on any given topic. That is why it is essential to ground our perspective in Scripture. As we listen to the voices around us, how to they measure up to the truth of the Bible? Do they reflect God’s heart for the world, the oppressed, and the believer? And are we regularly seeking God’s word on our own to discern His voice and truth as we interact with other voices?

I encourage students to compare what I say, and what they hear from others, to what they find in the Bible. I also challenge them to learn what God says about the issues they are encountering in their lives. Sometimes that means providing resources like study Bibles, study guides, or Scripture references. Other times it may mean doing a deep-dive study of a topic or book of the Bible with our students. Whatever it takes, make sure your students are equipped to study God’s word and put it into practice in their lives.

Help cast a Christ-like vision.

As we study Scripture, the goal isn’t just to acquire head knowledge or the ability to regurgitate Bible verses. It is to know Christ, to have an understanding of who He is, how He lived, and how He would have us live. Scripture gives us a vision for how we can walk in Christ-likeness, and we need that vision desperately if we are going to step into our calling as believers.

Those of us who are student leaders have a responsibility to aid in casting this vision. We have a responsibility to lead by example for the generations that will follow, and to help show them who we are following. Without this vision, we can construct a self-made vision for our lives and the world, one that can easily be swayed by outside voices who have no regard for God.

We find ourselves in a time where the weight of political opinions and personal preferences hold obvious weight in the church. Allegiances are placed in parties, people, and places that are not God, nor His word. The truth is this is a dangerous place to be because it means separating who we are and how we live from God and what He wants for us. When we separate ourselves and our responses to the world from God, we easily lose sight of the life we have been called to live as followers of Christ.

If we want to live powerfully for Christ, we cannot misalign our priorities. We need a vision for Him that captures our hearts and lives, and creates a lens through which we view everything else. Help your students form a Christ-centered vision of themselves, the church, and the world. From this point they will be most prepared to respond to the issues they encounter, and to live in the world as beacons of Christ’s light.

Humanize issues by making them personal.

Whenever I speak about justice, I have to share my personal connection to the issue. I have spent the last seven years fighting the specific issue of human trafficking, in large part because of the assault I experienced in high school. When I first learned about human trafficking, all I could picture were young people who were like me. They needed someone to speak up for them and fight for justice, just like I needed when I was a teenager. This made the issue personal for me.

As time as gone on, the issue continues to remain personal, not just from my experience, but also by listening to the stories of others who are willing to share. Each time we hear someone’s story, it transforms an issue from a headline, statistic, or hashtag, into a living, breathing human being. We can help students make these connections and move beyond disconnected observation to connection and care.

Of course any time we’re sharing stories on difficult topics, we have to use discretion and caution with what we share. It’s important to make sure stories are not overly graphic, and to provide trigger warnings. Whenever I talk about what happened to me, I am never explicit in what I share. I am always willing to share more with people who ask, but when speaking to a group, I use general terms and focus more on the help I received and what I learned than what was done to me.

Look for simple ways to help students make human connections to issues. Maybe it will involve asking someone to share, or perhaps experiencing another way of life on a mission or service trip. Help your students broaden their horizons and care about issues by making personal connections.

Help students move to action.

Humanizing issues can cause us to feel deeply about them. Sometimes feeling deeply can paralyze us because the issues feel too insurmountable. Students might wonder what they could ever do to tackle issues that are beyond all of us. This is where you can help students move to action.

This can be as simple as providing suggestions of ways students can help. Things as simple as gathering food for a pantry, serving at a homeless shelter, donating clothes or toys to a holiday drive, finding ways to shop ethically and fair trade, or financially supporting a child in another country. There are many ways students can fight injustice right where they are, sometimes they just need a few ideas.

Something else you can help your students do is discover their gifts, and how they can be used to combat an issue. Is your student a natural speaker, or an artist, a poet, or always looking for ways to help out with projects? Tap into the talents and gifts your students have been given and see the ways that serving others will become life-giving. Sometimes all it takes for a student to step up is having an adult speak their talents into their life.

Do what you can to equip your students, spiritually, mentally, and practically. The Christian faith cannot be something we just do in our minds, on Sundays and youth group nights. It needs to be holistic, our students want it to be holistic. We have a unique opportunity and responsibility to help our students step into a holistic Christian faith that speaks to every issue they will ever encounter. Will you help your students do this?

Leading Intentional Meetings

If you’re like me, you find yourself in meetings more often than you’d like. We have all been in meetings that seem like they have no focus or purpose, or that would have been better suited as an email. But I think if we take time to self-reflect we would see that perhaps some of the meetings we have lead or contributed to may also fit that description.

I am not an expert in hosting meetings and making them something that everyone wants to attend, but throughout my time in ministry, and other career fields, I have found ways to make them more intentional, life giving, and purposeful. Today my hope is to share with you a few ways that you could bring life and intentionality to your meetings and hopefully lead meetings that people want to attend.

Make the meeting relational and communal.

One of the best things you can do for your meetings is to have a time of fellowship and community building. We do this by hosting a meal during leader trainings and meetings, but this could look as simple as having light refreshments or a hot chocolate bar during parent meetings. This gives the people that you shepherd time to fellowship together and foster good community. It also allows you to engage and interact with your people. This is a great opportunity to foster a relationship that isn’t just seen as informational but purposeful and relational. This strengthens your ability to care for others and helps you effectively minister holistically to your people.

Incorporate prayer and spiritual formation.

If I am being honest, this wasn’t something that I incorporated early on in ministry, but it is something I have become keenly aware of utilizing in recent years. Prayer and spiritual formation are highly important in our own lives and within the lives of the people we have the privilege of shepherding. But in a hyper-busy world, prayer and spiritual formation can often take a back seat. Rather than lament that reality, we can create intentional opportunities to incorporate these rhythms into our lives and our meetings afford a prime opportunity to do so. When we shape a meeting around prayer and spiritual formation you are telling your people that they matter to you and that you care about them and their relationship with Jesus. This is more of a priority than simply training on the next cultural shift in youth ministry or in giving all the information to parents. Yes, those are good and beneficial topics to cover, but our primary focus should be on the spiritual health of our people. When you begin to incorporate these moments into your meetings you will see a culture shift within the ministry for the better. People will be more intentional, prayer becomes a priority, lives start to change, and growth happens (not just numerical but spiritual and relational growth as well). When we put God on the center stage, we will see great and powerful change come about.

Focus the time of information giving.

I know that when I lead meetings I can often come ready to give a firehose of information. Whether it is updates, reminders, or information about programmatic change, I always feel the pressure of trying to communicate all the information. But what if we simply approached the information piece in soundbites? Instead of simply dropping all the information with all the details, consider hitting the key points from up front but utilize handouts with more information for your people to look through. This may not stem all the questions but it will free up some of the meeting time which you can utilize with other material. Trying to condense the information time gives you the freedom and opportunity to frame your meeting in different ways and to be intentional with your time to care for your people.

Encourage and recognize your community.

This is one of my favorite things to do, especially during meetings with my leaders. I love to encourage them for all they have done and to make sure that they feel honored and encouraged. So often it is easy to take our leaders for granted because they continue to do what they always have done: an amazing job. But being able to intentionally recognize and encourage them publicly is huge and goes much further than a simple “nice job” or “thank you” after youth group. This isn’t reserved for just your leaders; it can be utilized in your student leadership team, parent meetings, or even amongst your staff team. Recognizing and encouraging your community will show them that you see and value them. It will endear your team to your ministry and challenge them to continue to grow and care for the people under their care.

Honor the schedule and be purposeful with it.

This is a huge one. We have all been in meetings that go too long and do not adhere to their schedule. As those meetings go on, we all find ourselves looking at the clock, feeling frustrated, and wondering how to adjust to the change in time. This is a big deal especially for those who have kids or students at home as it could mean a change in their schedules as well or perhaps a longer time for a babysitter which then incurs more financial strain. When you are intentional and purposeful with the time that you have allotted for the meeting, you are telling your people that you care about them and that they matter. This means that you need to think critically through your schedule and focus the timing of the various components. Doing this may feel difficult at first, but it may lend toward tweaking the overall time of the meeting to appropriately walk through all that is needed. Even if you end up making a meeting a little longer, being able to state how long the meeting is will allow your people to plan appropriately. Honoring the set timing also helps your people to see that you keep your word and are trustworthy. This further endears people to your leadership and the ministry.

One last final word of advice: try to keep all meetings without a meal to under one and a half hours, and a meeting with a meal at no more than two hours. This is a way to make sure we honor others’ time and schedules, and ensures that we are intentional with what is communicated and that is clear and concise.