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.

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.

Book Review: A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture

Recently we purchased “A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture,” a new book by our friend Walt Mueller from CPYU. When Walt first indicated he was writing this book I asked him if it would be helpful to take adult leaders through it even though the title indicates that it is for students. His reply was “yes” and that it would be beneficial for leaders and parents alike to walk through this book, and to consider reading it with their students as well. We decided to provide copies to our adult leaders, with the goal of discussing it at our quarterly training sessions. My hope is that today’s post provides you with insight on this book and gives you an understanding to know if it will be useful in your context (and spoiler alert, I believe it will be).

Walt writes in a way that is both easy to understand, and also in a way that challenges his readers to think biblically on a wide range of topics. This book is geared toward middle school, high school, and college-age students to challenge them on how they view, engage with, and respond to culture. The book is not long at all–94 pages total including the appendices–but contains an immense amount of wisdom and helpful tools and thoughts. At the end of each chapter there are reflection questions that can be utilized both in an individual context but also in a group discussion.

Walt spends the first four chapters talking about culture, its effects on humanity, God’s design for us and culture, and how followers of Jesus should live within the culture of which we are a part. These chapters are very helpful in building a framework to guide readers to think Christianly about how they live, the media they take in, and how they should respond to and engage with culture in a hurting and broken world. These chapters help the reader think biblically about our world, and challenges them to engage and live in it rather than shy away or retreat from it.

The final two chapters deal with two real world applications to how we as followers of Jesus should be living and engaging with our culture: gender and social media. Walt never shies away from the difficult topics but instead engages them head on. Walt delivers biblical truth with love and grace, and challenges his readers to always hold their views and perceptions to what the Word of God says, and to see if they match up.

The conversation on gender is never an easy one and it has people polarized on both sides of the conversation. Walt takes a traditional biblical view on this conversation but also readily acknowledges the complexity of the conversation. Walt knows this isn’t an easy conversation and actually encourages the readers (in this case, students) to continue talking about this topic with trusted Christian adults in their lives. Walt further challenges his readers to not simply be people who call out the wrongs within culture or their peers but to lovingly engage with them and to share truth in love not condemnation.

The chapter on social media is challenging to students and adults alike and is one I would recommend youth workers take students and families through as it provides so much knowledge and insight into how social media shapes us. Walt also provides great insight into the how, what, and why questions when it comes to sharing content on social media. This alone is a great resource to share with parents and students as I believe it will challenge all of them to think differently (Christianly) about what they are sharing online. And to be frank, it would actually be greatly beneficial to share those insights with your church as a whole.

If you are looking to purchase this book you can head over to CPYU’s website to purchase “A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture.” I would highly recommend purchasing this book for your own reading but also to utilize it among your leaders, parents, and students. How you choose to leverage this with your students should be based off of a couple criteria:

  • Are your students currently walking with Jesus? This isn’t a necessary piece as Walt outlines God’s redemption story for humanity in chapter 3, but it would be more suited to those who are walking with Jesus especially considering the cultural topics that are addressed within this book.
  • Are your students asking questions about culture and faith? This question actually suits most of our students but you will have some students who have already asked those questions and moved beyond them. This is a great entry level book, so discerning if it is helpful for the questions your students are asking will allow for you to make the right decision in who reads it.
  • What is the follow up? This is a big part of utilizing this book. The topics and questions it poses to the readers are ones that can be addressed individually but would be much more helpful if addressed with a trusted Christian adult or leader. That way students are able to continue the process of addressing how they engage with and respond to the culture of which they are a part.

What books or resources have you found helpful as you minister to students and their families?

The Value of Networking

This past week I had the opportunity to be part of a coaching cohort that was provided by our friends at Slingshot. It was one of the best things I have ever done for myself when it comes to ministry and growth as I came away being encouraged, challenged, and refreshed after what has been quite a difficult season.

This cohort was originally intended to start in late 2019, got bumped to March 2020, moved to fall of 2020, then to spring 2021, and finally October of 2021. While these setbacks and schedule changes were frustrating when they happened, looking at this past week I truly believe God had every intention of moving the cohort to this moment because He knew how many of us needed it in this season.

One of the many things I walked away with was the understanding that community and networking is highly important in our ministry contexts. Many of know and affirm this, but like everyone else over the last year and a half, have struggled to make it a reality. My hope and prayer for each of you reading this is that networking and community become a priority for you and that we radically pursue it in our lives. But I think for some of us, we may be curious as to why it’s important, and that’s what I want to share with you today. I simply want to point out a few key reasons networking is so important and hopefully encourage you to be a part of this as it is highly important to your sustainability and the sustainability of your ministry.

Vulnerability and transparency.

As we gathered at this cohort I was reminded of how good it is to be raw and honest with others. Many of us had been experiencing similar things over the last year and as a result we we able to be transparent and real with one another. What happened was not a moment of critique but a time of support, encouragement, and care for one another. As members of the body of Christ we are called to love and care for one another, but we can only fully do this when we are honest and transparent with one another. When we build networks and relationships, they help us to be real and honest with others who care about us and understand.

Community.

I think we all recognize the value of community, but if I am being honest, I think over the last year I was missing out on it. When you have a group of people who know you, care about you, are going through similar things, and can relate to what you are experiencing, you feel known and loved. This type of community isn’t always the easiest to find, but when you do it will help you in amazing ways. You will feel heard, you will gain insight, you will have people in your corner, and you will know you are not alone. Community is one of the best things that can come out of networking with others.

Being challenged.

At our cohort we talked about the complexities of leading in ministries and we took some deep and challenging looks at our current ministries, systems, and visions. And if I am being truly honest, this was really difficult for me. I was forced to work through areas I was weak in, to think about failures, and to look at areas I needed to cut. These types of conversations are never easy and are really challenging. But because of these conversations, I was forced to think critically about why I was doing what I was doing. It forced me to be reflective and to rethink what we were doing in our ministry. These types of interactions are not meant to be critical but instead to challenge us. When you are doing life with a community of people they will challenge you to grow, they will push you to adapt, they will provide helpful critiques, and they will be in your corner. Being challenged isn’t easy but it is necessary to help us grow and mature personally and within our ministries.

Personal growth.

One of the many things I loved about this past week was the ways I was able to grow and mature. I never want to get to the point where I feel like I know it all or have done everything, especially as it pertains to ministry. This cohort helped to challenge and make me more self-reflective as we took various leadership and personality assessments. Allowing for these assessments and godly men and women to speak into my life helped me to see areas that needed growth, it helped me learn how to be a better leader, and how to relate to other people in a more intentional way. When you engage in intentional community, networking, and education with people who care, you will see yourself grow in wonderful ways.

Collaboration and new perspectives.

During the past year I have missed this part of networking. And if I am being honest, I think we can become comfortable and complacent because we are used to the status quo. We do things one way because we have always done them that way. They may not be bad or wrong, but when we network with others we see things differently and in new and exciting ways. Networking affords you the opportunity to rethink, adapt, and improvise. You learn new tricks, find exciting opportunities, and build your toolbox. Collaboration helps you to do your job better as you are able to grow and experience new opportunities.

Shared passions and unity.

As I sat with youth workers from around the country last week, it was so evident that we all had shared passions. We all love Jesus, we all love students, and we all desire that our students love and walk with Jesus. This was so encouraging and refreshing. It was a moment where it was good to know I wasn’t alone. I knew I had a team and family of likeminded individuals around the country. People who shared the same mission and had the same heart for students that I do. This was something that I believe we all need. We all need encouragement and to know we aren’t alone, and networking affords us that opportunity.

My prayer for all of you reading this is that you know that you have a tribe. That there are people who love and care about students like you do. That you know there are people who understand and can relate to what you are going through. That you know that you are not alone. At the very least, my hope is you have found that refuge here at Kalos, and that you know we are in your corner. If there is anything we can be praying for or encouraging you with, please do not hesitate to reach out because we are a part of your network.

Dealing with Disruptions

With the start of a new school year, I have heard multiple youth workers lament how there have been increasing disruptions within their ministries. Whether it’s students not respecting a speaker or one another, or inappropriate comments during youth group, or constant interruptions in small groups, this is a reality many of us face. And for many of us it can feel frustrating and discouraging. We begin to wonder if we are part of the problem or we just get upset to the point of perhaps yelling at a student. But instead of responding critically toward the student or ourselves, it would be prudent to step back and think about the situation at hand.

Before thinking critically about how to handle disruptions, I think it is helpful to think about the “why.” Why are these disruptions happening? Why do they seem to be manifesting in force right now? I believe if we take time to reflect on this past year and a half, we may see some rationale for why these disruptions seem to be occurring on a larger scale than prior years.

  • Students weren’t engaging in interpersonal relationships due social distancing and schools going online.
  • Students were engaged in relationships primarily online which allowed for anonymity and for increased boldness to say and do things they normally would not.
  • Some students were not receiving the discipleship they needed and were therefore not developing in spiritual, emotional, and relational maturity.
  • Students have forgotten how to engage in interpersonal relationships and their filters have been forgotten as well.

So what should we do if there are disruptions? How do we handle it well? Today, I want to provide you with some steps on how to handle these types of situations, but also to caution you to remember that there are never two situations exactly the same. There will always be differences, so how you handle the situation won’t always look the same. Therefore, these steps may not all be included, or the process for engaging the disruption may change. And that is okay. These are meant to be steps that simply help us see the whole picture and lovingly walk with our students even in difficult moments.

Speak with love.

Sometimes when disruptions happen we can respond in ways that are not always healthy. Responding with sarcasm, accusatory humor, or even saying something like, “Come on Nick, why do you always have to be distracting others?” will never help you get your point across nor help the group respect and follow after you. Instead, always speak in love. Look to model Jesus and seek to love even the most difficult student. We don’t always know what students are going through or why they are responding in the manner that they are. And when we bite back with a quick retort or cutting comment, that immediately causes students to pull away and build bigger and stronger walls. So always speak with love, be willing to be humble, and remember your calling. When you embody these things it will allow you to better engage and handle the situation at hand.

Never assume.

We are all really good at assuming. But just because we are good at it doesn’t mean we should do it. It is easy to assume how a student will respond because we work with them and know their family history. But we don’t know everything that is happening in their lives. They may be getting bullied. There may be abuse. They may be struggling with their identity. They may be having harmful ideologies. These moments when a student becomes disruptive are moments for us to step up and be the leaders that God has called us to be.

We are called to embody the love of Jesus and care well for our students. You may not know what that student is going through until a later date, or perhaps you will never know, but I can guarantee you this: if you respond in love, that will create a better opportunity for you to invest in and care for that student. On the flip side, if you respond out of frustration, more walls will be built and that student will become more withdrawn and less likely to trust. By seeking to understand and responding out of love you will be able to better assess and engage with the student and walk with them.

Don’t call out publicly.

This is a big thing to avoid, and if we are honest with ourselves we may be guilty of this. I think sometimes our propensity when students are disruptive or distracting is to respond in the moment. But when we do that we make it personal and we become the attacker. We have allowed for what the student is doing to be an attack on what we are doing and we take it personally because we are presenting the Word of God and students should listen and pay attention. But the problem now is bigger because instead of seeking to understand, we have made it about how that student is the problem and how we are the authority who will quell the problem.

Instead, what we should seek to do is love the student and engage with them personally. Show them that they have value and worth. Look to explain and seek to understand. See the student and not the issue. When you do this it allows you to invest into the life of the student and love them, which shows the student you truly care. I have often found when students are disruptive they are seeking to see if the youth leader really loves them and they are watching how they respond. They want to see if you are for them and if your words match your actions. So use this as a time to care for them and model Christ.

Look for the “why.”

As you engage with students don’t assume you know why they are acting out. Take time to dig deep, to ask them questions, and to get to the heart of the matter. There may be extenuating circumstances that are affecting the student and causing them to act out. We never know until we seek to understand and ask those questions. So talk with the student. Show them you care. Ask about their life. And seek to understand. When you do this you will begin to see the relational equity pay off and you will be able to engage at a deeper level with the student.

Do not use absolutes.

It is easy when talking to students to make statement like, “Why are you always the one who is disruptive?” Or, “Why do you never want to listen to the lesson?” Or, “Why must you always be a problem?” These types of absolute statements tell students that they are the problem and always will be the problem, and that they will never be anything other than a problem. This type of language is incredibly harmful and will stick with the student for much, if not all, of their life. So seek to use statements like, “Why did this happen tonight?” followed with concrete examples of other times if this has been repetitive behavior. But in that same vein, highlight how you have seen the student actually pay attention or be a leader. Don’t only focus on the negative, but seek to affirm and raise up the positive.

Challenge the student.

When you are engaging with a student and talking about the difficult moments, use this as an opportunity to not only highlight the difficulties but also to challenge the student. Speak truth into their lives. Affirm their strengths and what they bring to the group. Challenge them to be better and be the leader they can be. Help them to see that what they do matters and that they can help to bring about proactive and beneficial change in the lives of other students and the group. When you tell a student that you love them and see potential and great things from them, you are telling them that they have value and worth. You are telling them that they matter and are needed. This will help students see that they can and should be looking to be different and to lead out.

Bring in parents.

This is typically a last resort for me, because students hate having their parents know that they misbehaved. When a student is disruptive it rarely qualifies for bringing in a parent, but depending on the severity of the situation it may be warranted. In those moments do not seek to simply be right or prove your case. Share the facts and the reason it warranted calling in the parents. But also highlight that this is not something that means the student is cast out from the ministry. Let parents know you are for their student and for them, but that the behavior needs to change because it is negatively affecting the group. Allow for the parents to work through a solution and be willing to partner with them and the student. I would also say that whatever discipline the parents decide on, do not write off the student. Continue to love them, pray for them, and walk with them. It may not be received right away, but remembering that this student is still a part of your program and one of your sheep will allow for you to care them in real and tangible ways.

How to Work Well on a Team [Part 2]

Last week we began sharing some insights into how to work well on a team and this week we want to continue the conversation by providing a few more ideas. While none of these ideas is a guaranteed fix-all, utilizing them together will help you as an individual and your team grow and mature as you seek to serve God together. Today’s ideas are more directed toward self-reflection and growth but can also be applied and embraced within the team.

Strive to enhance the team not individual goals.

For most of us it is easy to default to seeking our own goals even when we are on a team. This isn’t always from a place of pride or ego, but from simple human nature and the way culture has shaped us to think of ourselves. But Christ has always challenged us to put others before ourselves, and Paul actually encourages us to die to our own desires to elevate Christ.

When it comes to working on a team we need to consider these truths and be willing to put aside our own desires and wants, seeking to elevate the goals of the team and the ministry you serve. It isn’t about self but instead about the team that is working to impact the kingdom of heaven through the ministry of which you are a part. This is not to say that your personal goals aren’t worthwhile or important, but instead to interpret them within the overall mission and vision of the ministry team.

Be for one another.

Being for one another is something we should focus on within each aspect of our lives. Whether your team is present or not, you should seek to speak well of them. We shouldn’t talk poorly about each other or try to point fingers because that will fracture the unity of your team. Being mindful of how we speak and represent one another will help us be for one another in all moments.

It may be easier to be for one another when the team is present, but your conversations outside of the team should also reflect that mentality. If you are not honoring and supporting one another in your private conversations then you are not for your teammates. I am not saying you cannot vent or share how you’ve felt with those who you are close with, but be mindful of what you say. Is it simply sharing frustration or is it being critical of your team?

Pray for each other.

Whether your team is united or not, praying for one another should be a high priority. Praying for one another helps to unite a divided team and brings strength to one that is already united. When you pray for others you see them as real people rather than just a teammate or someone who frustrates you. Prayer allows for teams to be for each other but also to be intentional in how they relate and work with each other. Praying for your teammates allows for you to care for them and love them as Jesus does, and is a way to protect your team from faltering by relying on God to carry you through all moments.

Have important conversations in person.

This is actually a piece of advice I give to everyone when it comes to relationships. Texts, emails, and even phone conversations can often be ambiguous and they tend to embolden people due to distance and the inability to actually see the other person. In many ways, conversations that aren’t in person allow us to think of the other person in a non-relational way. We have actually dehumanized them because we feel empowered and emboldened to say things we normally wouldn’t in person.

When you have important conversations in person it allows you to see, hear, empathize, and sympathize with the other person(s) involved. You are able to read facial expressions, observe body language, and hear inflections and emotions rather than trying to interpret them from afar. You see the person as a real individual and it challenges you to lovingly speak truth while caring for them in the same moment.

Be willing to be humble.

Sometimes when we work on a team we may not always be humble, not because we don’t want to, but because we aren’t always thinking that way. On a team we may have a propensity toward trying to win, or push our ideas, or think we know better than the rest of the team. These feelings aren’t always intentional because our society seeks to cultivate a “me first” focus and direction. But if we don’t seek to understand our emotional and relational intelligence we could actually harm relationships with our team. When working with a team be willing to be humble and choose to die to yourself. Be willing to elevate the team. Be willing to not always have your ideas be the ones that are chosen. Be willing to encourage and love your team. This type of approach will allow for your team dynamic to flourish and for relationships to be strengthened.

Try new things and ideas.

As we continue to grow and mature sometimes we get stuck in our ways and habits. We have developed our rhythms and ways of doing things. But the beauty of working on a team is hearing about and participating in new ideas and methods. So take time to try new things, be willing to adapt, and allow yourself to be stretched. These opportunities will help you grow as an individual and a leader, all while working with and encouraging your team.

How to Work Well on a Team [Part 1]

When it comes to working on a team, whether a student ministry team or an all church team or even as a volunteer, there are unique challenges and opportunities that come with that role. Often these challenges and opportunities will manifest in different ways with each individual and that can make the team dynamic feel stretched or challenging. The question we must be thinking through as members and leaders of these teams is how can we set them up for and contribute to their success so the Gospel ultimately succeeds. Today I hope to share with you some insight that I have learned from working on teams that will prayerfully help you and the teams you lead or are a part of be successful on your mission to reach people for Jesus.

Communicate clearly and consistently.

When it comes to being on a team one of the biggest things to focus on is clear and consistent communication. What you say, what you don’t say, what your body and facial expressions communicate is highly important. As you work with a team think about how what you say, how you say it, why you say it, and when you say it is received by those on your team. This will help you to be self-reflective and to think through motive and purpose behind what you are communicating. Clear and consistent communication also removes ambiguity and allows for clarity amongst the team so everyone is on the same page and knows if there are differing emotions, expectations, or alignments within the team.

Listen well.

This is something that we can all work on. Listening well in life is important but as you are working with a team it is even more so because poor listening leads to poor communication and no clarity or direction. So as you come together as a team be willing to listen to and hear from other people well. Don’t come with presuppositions and do not presume that you know what they will say or motives behind what they do. Instead seek to understand by listening well and look at the heart of what is being communicated.

Be willing to help even if it isn’t your job.

Often times we can get hyper focused in our roles and only see what we need to do. Or we can make excuses about how we can’t help due to busyness, time, or it isn’t part of our job focus. But that is born out of selfishness, and instead we should die to ourselves and seek to help one another. When you see your facilities team setting up or cleaning up from an event (even if it isn’t one of your’s), seek to honor them by helping them out.

Now I will say this: being willing to help others does not mean you sacrifice everything in every moment. You need to make sure you are setting and honoring healthy boundaries to make sure you are staying healthy holistically. It is okay to say “no,” but we need to make sure it is for appropriate reasons and not out of selfishness.

Bring your ideas to the table.

Part of being on a team means that someone has seen your skills and value, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the team. So share your thoughts and ideas. An idea not shared won’t ever come to fruition. But it is also important to remember to value and encourage the ideas of others. It isn’t only about getting your ideas across to the team, but it also includes valuing and affirming other ideas that are presented. Ideas and thoughts from a team provide meaningful insight, creativity, and opportunities for growth and they should be valued.

Be honest with your thoughts and feelings.

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. When it comes to working on a team, open and honest conversations are hugely important to the health and well-being of the team. So if you’re feeling a certain way about the team, a teammate, or even how you are viewed or utilized, make sure to share that. It isn’t easy in the moment, it will feel uncomfortable, and the tension may be palpable. But actually engaging with one another and being honest is hugely important and will make the team stronger.

I would like to offer a few suggestions on how to do this that will be helpful in having these conversations:

  • Be honest, but be full of grace and humility in doing so.
  • Do not assume or presume about others. Don’t walk into a conversation assuming the worst. Go in knowing God is at work and working all things out for His glory.
  • Be willing to receive. Sometimes you will need to be talked to about how you have been engaging others, and you need to be willing to receive that well.
  • Be willing to hear out your teammates. Hear what they have to say because at the end of the day they may not know how things were received or heard, and by doing this you can help shape future conversations and interactions.
  • Pray for your teammates. In these moments prayer is hugely important as it helps us focus on God and it centers our hearts in how we engage with others as a result.

Next week we will conclude this conversation and look at our final points on how to work well on a team. In the in-between time, what have you done or seen that helped teams work well together?

Shaping Your Youth Group Gatherings

When it comes to our student ministry gatherings we should be intentional with how we shape them. Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a week night, or special event, we should critically think through what makes it something students will want to come to and be a part of, and how can our gatherings can intentionally bring students closer to Jesus. Our times of gathering together are highly important as they are opportune moments to pour into our students and help them mature in the discipleship process.

As we look at our gatherings we should be thoughtful not only in thinking through why we are hosting them, but also in how they are structured and designed. Is the goal of the gathering reflected in its scheduling? Do people understand what the purpose is? Is the gathering intentional and focused so that people can clearly see Jesus throughout it? As we wrestle through these questions, they will ultimately allow us to craft gatherings that are focused, intentional, communal, and oriented toward the priorities and hearts of our students.

Make it intentional.

Whenever we host a gathering, it should never be to just have another event, nor should it be a competitive response to something we have seen. Trying to compete with a bigger church or program, trying to reflect what we see influences do, or trying to be the next “big thing” is not what attracts students over the long term. You may see numbers go up for short periods, but it is not a sustainable approach to ministry, nor are we reaching students with the life-changing power of the Gospel. We should focus on crafting gatherings that have a clear intent and are designed to build community, engage with students, and point them to Jesus. You don’t need to be the biggest and best but being intentional and focused on your students will bring more students out over time because they see you truly care about them and their faith.

Have a focus and purpose.

Whenever you gather your students together there should be a focus and purpose that not only shapes how the event looks, but also has a focused outcome and desired results. If it’s about building disciples then shape the gathering with adequate small group time. If it’s about worship and singing praises, shape the time to give prominence to those moments. If it’s simply to be relational and build community then seek to have opportunities that reach people across the spiritual spectrum and make it easier for newcomers to step in. By knowing your focus and purpose, it will allow you to create programs and elements within the program that will best reach your students with the desired outcome.

Bring in elements that build community.

Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a small group gathering, or outreach event, think critically about how you can make the space more inviting, intentional, and community-focused. By doing this you will help students to lower their walls, build trust, and be willing to continue coming, and prayerfully, invite their friends. There are various ways to do this, but even subtle changes can make huge differences in how students engage and respond. Here are a few quick ideas for what to incorporate to help with this idea:

  • Food. By bringing in food you are automatically creating an opportunity to build community because people naturally want to converse when there is food. Food can look different across ministries as well. It could be a café, it could be a full meal, it could be light snacks or breakfast treats, or it could be a hot chocolate bar. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but that we use it to help amply community.
  • Environment. It is important think about our environment and if the environment reflects and encourages community. Do you have tables set up where students can sit together and converse over their food? How many tables do you have set up? If you set up too many tables it may allow for students to spread out and not engage with each other, but if you have the right amount of chairs, you are leveraging the area that students must use for community. Do you have lighting that is welcoming? Do people know where you gather by the signage you have? Do you have comfortable seating? Is your gathering area reflective of your purpose and vision for community? This is all conditional upon space, budget, and ability, but let me encourage you to think about how you can shape and utilize the spaces you have to encourage community and fellowship.
  • Games. This one area can either drastically help your ministry or drastically hurt it. If we seek to do games that only appeal to a small subset of students, we alienate the others who are attending. Often times youth workers default to games they enjoy, something they saw online, or some crazy idea that they came up with while perusing the supply closet. While those ideas and games may all have a time and place, consider utilizing your games to reach a large swath of students. Put out board and card games. Consider utilizing group games like GaGaball or 9 Square that generate community. Or if you are hosting a themed gathering, think through how all your games and activities could reach the widest range of students. Invest in activities that incorporate more than a couple of students and will allow for conversion and engagement for a larger number.
  • Music. Believe it or not, music can actually enhance community and engagement. Think about this: have you ever walked into a space that was silent? There was no music or even background noise, maybe just a few hushed whispers here and there? Did it feel awkward and uncomfortable? The same is true for our youth spaces. Utilize music to bring people together. Consider crafting playlists in Spotify to build playlists that reflect the atmosphere you are desiring. If you want a chill area, build a coffee house playlist. If you want a more energetic atmosphere for activities and games, build a contemporary playlist with upbeat and engaging music.
  • Conversation. Now you may be asking yourself, why do we need to generate conversations? Doesn’t that naturally happen when people gather? Yes, it does, for most people. Some students struggle with social anxiety or may have difficulties knowing how to engage with others. You could think about posting a couple get-to-know-you style questions on your screens. You could put printed out questions designed to help people interact with one another. Or you could put engagement questions together for your small group leaders that are designed to build community within their groups. These options will help your students and leaders engage better with one another overall.

Think through how the gathering reflects your vision and purpose.

As you craft your gatherings it is extremely important to think about how they are presenting your purpose and vision to your students, leaders, and families. We shouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. What we put together should be focused and intentional because that helps us to better minister to our students and it allows us to purposefully communicate our heart and passion to everyone involved. That is not to say you cannot have spontaneous gatherings or that your leaders can’t gather their small group for ice cream. But it should be imperative if spontaneous gatherings happen, that they also reflect the heart and vision of the ministry. That means a trip to get ice cream is more than ice cream, it is a time of care and discipleship. It means a Mario Kart tournament is more than just video games, it is a time of connection and community. When we allow our vision and purpose to be a part of all we do, it shapes our program and our students.

Create a rhythm.

Having a rhythm and flow to your gatherings is highly important as it provides consistency and stability. In a world that is ever-changing, providing stability for families is huge. They can build their schedules accordingly. They can begin to prioritize gatherings and youth events. They can think through what they can and cannot commit to. An established rhythm also allows your leaders to know what to expect, which helps them focus and hone their skills and gifts during gatherings because they are already in the flow of the ministry.

How do you intentionally shape and structure your gatherings to better reach your students?