Caring for Students with Special Needs

Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.

My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.

Get to know your people.

This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.

Equip and keep your team in the know.

If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.

No two people are ever the same.

This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.

Make your place safe and welcoming.

Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.

Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.

Purchase some sensory equipment.

This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.

Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.

There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.

Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.

Effectively Using Social Media

Most of us recognize that social media is an effective tool and means of communication in student ministry. But we should also critically think through how and why we use it. Social media is a powerful tool that we can leverage but if we don’t have a plan or target for the intent and purpose of it, we are simply using an effective tool in an ineffective way. Today, I want to share a few things that you should think through as you utilize social media to equip, empower, and disciple your students.

Know your purpose for using social media.

It is easy to simply jump on the social media bandwagon because everyone else is using it in student ministry. But how and why each ministry uses social media is different. Some use it to simply put out content that is engaging. Others use it to communicate information. Some will use it to evangelize or disciple people. Still others use it to highlight their ministry, students, leaders, or families. What is your purpose, or your ministry’s purpose, in using social media? Once you answer that question you can begin building effective social media content for your audience.

Think through which apps you will use.

As you begin thinking about how to utilize social media effectively, you must think about which apps or social media channels you will use and why. Think through which age demographics are using which social media platforms. Consider who your primary audience is on each platform. Think about whether the social media you are using is going to be effective for your purpose. Also, read through the background and user agreement for the apps or platforms you are using. Some social media platforms were built for nefarious purposes and their desire is actually completely anti-student ministry. As you dig into these factors and engage with them, it will help you choose which apps to utilize and think about how and why you are using them.

Have a social media posting schedule.

Having consistent times to post and share content is hugely important. It affords you a timetable of when you post, it allows you to shape what is posted and when, and it allows your people to know and follow your schedule. It could be as simple as choosing a day or two to share posts that encourage engagement, it could be a day set aside for a weekly devotion, it could be reminders for programming, or it could be a weekly post highlighting leaders or students. Once you have a schedule figured out, make sure to communicate that with your teams, your students, and with families. This then affords you an opportunity to share what and why you are posting and to help curate buy-in to the ministry.

Post at appropriate times.

As you begin thinking about what you are posting, it is important to think about when you are posting. As simple as it seems, knowing what time of day and what days to post various content is highly important. Posting content for your audience means knowing when your audience is most inclined to view that content. If you’re posting on a school day for students it wouldn’t be prudent to post at 10 a.m. when they are in class. The same could be said for knowing when and what to post for parents; posting during a work day may not be prudent but posting once they are home would be.

Leverage your content to reflect your vision.

This is a big piece of utilizing social media well: use your platform to share your vision and the heart of your ministry. Whenever you post to social media make sure the vision and heart of your ministry is clear. This is true not just in the words you share but your photos and videos should communicate that as well. If your vision is focused discipleship communities and not large events, it would be prudent for your images to reflect that. So think through what your are sharing how it can best represent and reflect your vision well.

Incorporate photos and stories of your people.

One of the best ways to utilize social media well is using photos of your people. When you take photos of your students, leaders, or families and share them, it brings attention to your ministry and drives engagements up. People want to see what is happening and be invested in the important parts of your ministry; and your people are just that. So include photos and stories that share what God is doing and allow that to drive engagement on your social media platforms.

Book Review: The Great Sex Rescue

I had heard a few podcast interviews with Sheila Wray Gregoire, but after listening to one last month on Theology in the Raw with her and her daughter Rebecca Lindenbach, I knew it was time to read their book (also co-written by Joanna Sawatsky). The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended is an important, insightful book that I highly recommend everyone read, regardless of your marital status.

We started talking more about counseling last week here on the blog and over on our Instagram account, and The Great Sex Rescue is a must-have for anyone doing pre-marital or marital counseling. Not only that, any youth or church leader who is speaking on sex and marriage to their students or congregants regardless of the setting will benefit from the concepts, facts, and perspectives in this book. And if you are married, the book includes discussion questions and other things to work through as a couple that will help strengthen and grow intimacy in your relationship.

One of the things I most appreciated was how the authors seek to reframe unhealthy messages about sex and intimacy that have been prevalent in the evangelical church for decades. Each chapter ends with a segment called “rescuing and reframing” which helps the reader to shift from inaccurate and harmful beliefs and statements to healthy, biblical, and factual statements. And while much of the book’s content is geared toward married couples, we would be remiss not to begin the process of reframing for our young people now. They deserve the best possible narrative and information when it comes to topics of sex and intimacy and the church should be a safe, healthy place for them to receive that information, especially if they are not hearing it at home.

The Great Sex Rescue also features research from a survey conducted with 20,000+ women, which provides data points and educational information particularly relating to married couples in the church. The information they gathered sheds light on what has been happening in marriages as a result of the messages, books, and stigmas that have been taught in the Christian community. While I found much of this information sad and disheartening, I also felt challenged to help influence the Christian community to do better. As followers of the Author of marriage, intimacy, and sex, we should be giving the best possible information we can to those we teach and lead. It is our responsibility to filter out harmful messages whenever we are made aware of them, and this book does exactly that. We can also begin to paint a better, more beautiful picture of what intimacy should look like within marriage, and why it matters.

Do yourself, your students, and fellow church-goers a favor and read this book. Then share it with other leaders, pastors, and couples. We can begin to re-write the broken messages of the past, forging a better, healthier future for our churches, and stronger, more intimate marriages. Thank you to Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna for putting in the work to share this book with the world.

Tips for Pre-Marital and Pre-Engagement Counseling

Recently Elise and I have had the honor and privilege to walk with former students and volunteers through pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. While it is an honor, it is also humbling to think that I have reached that stage in student ministry where I am now seeing former students get married and start families. Nothing says you are getting up there like those moments (haha). But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As we have walked through these counseling sessions, it is apparent that to handle them well, we need to know how to proceed, what to cover, and most importantly, we need to know the couple. As I step back and look at what we have done well and where we could improve, I want to provide a few tips on how to help you be the best counselor to those who come to you for pre-engagement or pre-marital advice, guidance, and support.

Listen well and observe.

This is one of the best things you can do if you are walking with a couple. Often you can pick up on nuances or subtleties by simply observing and listening to the couple. You can see how they treat one another, listen to how they speak to and about one another, sense when there is tension, and also notice strengths. This is not meant for you to curate a list of problem areas or to critique them, but instead it helps you notice areas that need to be talked through and processed so they can become a healthier couple going forward.

Speak truth in love.

When it comes to former students, don’t be afraid to speak truth to them. When you work with students long enough you see areas that they need to improve upon, but we can often soften the approach to help protect them and the relationship we have with them. However, when it comes to entering into a marriage relationship that student isn’t only working on themselves, there is another person who is intimately involved as well. I am not saying to be mean and critical, but to speak truth directly in love.

Let me provide an example. If we are at camp and the guys’ dorm is disgusting we may say something like, “Gentlemen, this isn’t okay. Clean up your crap or no free time.” In a marriage saying something like that doesn’t work, but in pre-marital counseling you can bring up the conversation of cleanliness, who is responsible for what, how does the couple handle tension, personality types, laziness, and even how our actions communicate love.

Address problem areas.

This tip is probably one of the harder ones, especially depending on the depth of your relationship with the couple or individual. If a former student comes to you seeking relationship or pre-marital counseling, there is a good possibility you know a lot about them including where they struggle. I would encourage you to be open and honest with the couple from the beginning and let them know that if they choose to continue in this counseling relationship, you will not shy away from difficult conversations. This is not because you take joy in pointing out sins or struggles, but because you are encouraging authenticity, transparency, and seeking to strengthen their relationship through holistic intimacy.

Provide resources.

Resources are huge! Don’t simply rely upon your conversations with the couple, but give them outside resources whether books, articles, research, or a podcast. Elise and I are always on the lookout for things we can provide to the couples we are counseling. In fact, keep an eye out as Elise is going to do a book review on a book we just read that in our opinion is a must for couples thinking about marriage.

When you provide resources it allows people to go home, engage with a topic or conversation, gives them time to process, and then opens up an opportunity for ongoing conversation with their significant other. Resources also afford you follow up conversations and the opportunity to see what the couple has learned and talked through together. Some things we send couples home with are questions from our session with them, DISC Personality Assessments, episodes from Theology in the Raw or The Bare Marriage Podcast, websites like To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, or the Feelings Wheel with a directive to utilize these resources in all of their conversations together over the next couple of weeks.

Refer out when needed.

This is one the best things you could do as the person(s) counseling a couple. There are so many areas we are not equipped to handle as ministers and leaders because we have not had the training. It is important to remember that most of us are not licensed counselors or trained to help people in certain areas because if we try to do so and offer bad or wrong insight, it could lead to horrible consequences. So should the conversation lean toward an area or reveal a situation you are not comfortable with or equipped and trained to handle, you need to refer out right away. This is not removing you from caring for and working with the couple, but instead helping them get the help and care they need.

My recommendation would be for you to begin building a network before you even begin counseling couples. Know who is a licensed and trained counselor in your area who is trained in helping couples. Bonus points if they also are Christian counselors as that will ensure consistency with what God says about marriage and relationships. Know who your mental health professionals and addiction specialists are as well. You never know when past trauma, harmful behavior, abuse, or addictive behavior may manifest in your sessions with couples, and being able to refer out is paramount in those moments. Also, know your state’s laws on various topics and think through when you need to get different first responders involved.

Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.

I feel like this is something I have heard all too often when it comes to pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. Couples prepared for conversations about sex and intimacy, couples came ready to talk about their past, topics of abuse and trauma were said to be discussed, but then those conversations are barely approached or dismissed altogether. I know for Elise and I this happened to us, and honestly left us feeling frustrated and disappointed.

These aren’t always easy conversations and frankly they could lead to awkward or difficult interactions, but these are needed moments. I have always wondered if we avoid addressing something before a couple gets married, how will it be addressed when they are married? The reality is those topics won’t just go away and a lack of engagement will lead to prolonged tension, frustration, disappointment, or worse.

So dial into those conversations and strive to do well. Approach them with love, grace, and truth. Be mature as you talk through them. Be willing to engage them and be honest about what is and isn’t helpful. Also be willing to help eliminate or minimize stigmas surrounding those topics and give them the prominence they deserve. In these moments you are valuing the couple and helping them work on communication and holistic intimacy.

What have you found works best for you in counseling couples?

Responding Well to a Crisis

Working in both security and various ministries, I have witnessed or been involved in a variety of crises. Whether it was treating a compound fracture, being pastor-on-call when a deacon and father passed from a sudden heart attack, caring for a family who’s loved one took their life, administering first aid to a twisted knee, handling a mental health crisis, or ensuring a leader suffering a heart attack stayed conscious while EMTs arrived, there are moments in all of our lives that will be crisis moments. We must be prepared to step into them well.

Not all of us will have the same skillset or training, but God has uniquely and divinely equipped and positioned each of us to be present in those moments for an express purpose. I believe that in order to truly handle those moments and situations well, we must be prepared and knowledgeable so we can care well for our people.

Today I want to provide you with some ways to prepare (as best we can) for crisis moments by helping us think through steps before, during, and after the crisis that will help us best respond and minister to the people under our care. I will say this though: these steps do not make you a crisis negotiator nor afford you any special training or ability to be something we are not. In many crisis moments referral is necessary as we are not equipped to handle various things. This is simply meant to help you think through how you respond and are equipped as we know that we will experience these moments in our lives.

Pre-crisis.

Know your team. This is so important because knowing who is on your team and their skillset allows you to be prepared for various circumstances. Perhaps you have a mental health counselor, or an EMT, or a nurse on your team. Knowing these people allows you to gain knowledge and insight from them, to empower them to take the lead in crisis situations, and helps your leaders take more ownership because they are seen and empowered to lead.

Know your networks. This is one of the most important things you can do before a crisis. If you know the people, agencies, and services that are provided in your community, you will be better suited to know how to respond and who to respond to. Knowing the counselors in your community and building a relationship with them allow you to help people better. Knowing the crisis hotline and helpful, caring, knowledgeable health professionals means you can bring a trusted resource and needed care to your people. Knowing the police officers, EMTs, and firefighters means that you not only can advocate for and care for first responders, but can also help them know and love your people and vice versa. When you build a network you are building a trusting and caring community and you can be a bridge to the person who is experiencing the crisis by connecting them to someone you know and trust.

Be educated. Whether it is by taking a CPR and first aid course, reading or listening to trusted resources, furthering your academic education, or talking with a professional, make sure to continue to grow in your knowledge and expertise. The more you know the better suited you will be to care for people and respond to a crisis.

During the crisis.

Stay calm. This is huge. As a leader, your level of intensity, panic, or calm will reflect outward to your people and the person experiencing the crisis. Think about this: if a fire alarm goes off and you start freaking out and yelling “we are all going to die,” your people may not respond well. But if you keep a cool head and direct people out, making sure they are safe, then your people will reflect your resolve and peace. This is true in any crisis situation, so always seek to remain calm. Now I will say this: it is okay to feel the intensity and adrenalin within yourself, but don’t let that be reflected outward. Should a student call you and say they have a plan to take their life, it is okay to feel all the things and begin to make a plan of intervention. But don’t let the intensity or panic reflect in your voice or in your actions.

Remember and rely on your training. This goes hand-in-hand with staying calm. The more training you have the calmer you will be in a situation. Sometimes when a crisis develops it is helpful to simply pause and breathe for 3-5 seconds and calm your heart as you assess what is happening. As you assess remember your training and step in and respond to the best of your ability.

Bring in necessary people. This goes back to knowing your team. You may have some training or equipping, but there may be others who are better suited to respond. I’ve had various types of training when it comes to handling first aid and crises, but if someone is hurt I am defaulting to the nurses and doctors in my program. Their training and education is much greater than mine and they can handle the situation in better ways.

Contact the necessary people and/or agencies. This is paramount. If there is a fire we all know to call 911, but do you know who to call in a mental health crisis? What about in the event of a power outage? What if there is a tornado or hurricane? Knowing who to call and when is key in a crisis, and honestly something that all leaders of a ministry should know and equip their volunteers with as well.

Pray. This is something that you as the primary responder should be doing throughout the crisis, but I would also encourage you to call your leaders and people in your ministry to pray as well. You may not always have that luxury as some crisis moments are between you and just the individual, but if a crisis happens in a public setting like your youth group, encourage your leaders to pull people away from the crisis (nothing elevates stress and embarrassment like a crowd hovering) and have them pray for what is happening.

Care for your people. Let the person(s) involved in the crisis know that you love them and are there for them. Be a calming presence and allow the peace that God affords us to be reflected through you to them. Also, if you aren’t the primary responder, make sure to care for the other people at the crisis. If a nurse steps in, care for the friends of the individual. Pray, read scripture, cry together, and walk with them.

Post-crisis.

Continue to care for your people. Sometimes after a crisis has been handled and the appropriate people and agencies contacted, it may seem easier to assume our job is done. But honestly your job is only just beginning. Continuing to care for your people, those who had the crisis and those affected by it, is paramount. As you continue to follow up, speak love and truth, and minister to people, you will be showing them the power, peace, and love of God.

Stay involved to the appropriate degree. As you continue to care for people, it is also important to know your role. It is easy to for us to want to care and be involved, but there are only so many degrees to which we can do so. Trying to get involved in the counseling sessions after a mental health crisis could muddy the waters. But continuing to care for and minister to that person is key. Trying to get into an operating room isn’t allowed, but sitting with the family and being present is hugely important. Seek to find a balance to the level of involvement that enables you to care well for others.

Know your limitations. While care and involvement are good things, it is also helpful to know our place and our limitations. Sometimes we can be prone to inserting ourselves into situations that don’t warrant our involvement, or exhausting ourselves through our efforts to stay involved. So know your skillset, know how you can be of the best help, and know when to step back and let others handle the situation. This will help you make sure that your people receive the best possible care and allow you to breathe and find peace in the midst of the aftermath of the crisis.

Pray. Prayer is something that should continue to be a part of this journey. Pray for your people. Pray for everyone involved. Pray for continued treatment and helpful results. Pray for healing and resolution. Pray for peace and for people to see and trust Jesus. As you pray continue to trust God and rely on Him to bring healing and restoration to this moment.

Talk to a counselor or a trusted person for decompression. This is more about self-care. As someone who has been in too many traumatic situations to count, I know the weight they can put on you. The emotional, physical, psychological, and even spiritual weight that can come from these events can feel overwhelming and crippling. So make sure to talk to someone and process through what has happened. Release the emotions, talk through what happened, and process your thoughts. Doing this will help you heal and be a better minister to those in your care.

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in:

5 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.

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?

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?