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?

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.

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?

How to Make Small Group Time Intentional and Purposeful

Small group time is incredibly important for our students to grow and mature as young adults and as disciples of Jesus. We should be looking to incorporate this into our programming and making it a part of our normal rhythms. This will look different depending on the size of your program, the number of leaders and students that you have, and even the layout of where you meet. But this is something that regardless of hurdles, is exceptionally important.

Small groups provide a space for students to process and engage at a personal level, and to think through with a smaller peer group about what it means to live with and reflect Jesus in their spheres of influence. These spaces are truly where transformational discipleship happens, therefore we should critically think through how we are utilizing this time to best impact and challenge our students. Today, our hope is to provide some insight into ways to embrace small group time to best impact your students.

Know your material.

This is one of the best things you can do to make small group time intentional, focused, and beneficial for your students. If you know the material and are prepared, it will allow you to curate discussion and insight that will help your students process and apply what was shared. It also keeps you from scrambling or trying to think through things on the fly. Instead you are able to think about what will best relate to and challenge your individual group because you know them, their desires, their strength and weaknesses, and also where they need to be stretched. These moments will only come about if you prepare for the discussion in small group.

Now it is important to understand that your preparation can only go so far, especially as it depends on your leader getting you the content you need to prepare. Pastors, leaders, and speakers let me say this to you: do your best to equip and provide your leaders with the necessary materials for guiding their small groups. The sooner you get information into their hands, the better prepared they will be to pour into and shepherd your students. But if a leader or speaker does not get you all the information ahead of time, that does not discount you from preparing. Listen to the speaker. Take notes. Think about questions that will engage and challenge your group. Utilize the Bible passages that were shared and use them for further and deeper study with your group.

Know your group and be relational.

Part of having an intentional and purposeful small group time comes from knowing the group and being relational. When you carve out time to get to know your students and for them to know one another, it allows for the conversation to become more intentional and personal as they become comfortable with others in the group. You are helping walls to come down and in the same moment, growing authentic relationships within the group. Through these moments your students will grow to trust you and see you not just as a leader but as someone who cares about them and about their relationship with Jesus. As you relate to them personally, you are making yourself real and authentic to them which will help these times together to be even more intentional and focused.

Balance the time well.

The key to a proactive small group session is to know how to balance the time. Small group time shouldn’t be 90% jokes and 10% discussion. This won’t allow for adequate sharing, relational depth, or spiritual growth, and instead it just becomes another place to hang out and not be serious. Now this is not to say that you can never have a small group time like that. We all know that students sometimes just need a place to laugh and decompress. What I am suggesting is that this isn’t the normal flow and function of the group. Look to balance the time between relational, spiritual, and personal growth. Here’s an example of what I mean, and the timing is malleable to your small group schedule:

  • Relational: Time in the beginning spent sharing highs and lows. Think 10 minutes.
  • Spiritual: Talk about the lesson, what challenged the students, and personal application. This should be the bulk of the time at 20+ minutes.
  • Personal: This is where the rubber meets the road. This can contain prayer requests and a time of prayer for each other, it can incorporate a time of deeper application, or perhaps it is more focused on confession and life change. This would be anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

Talk less.

This may seem counterintuitive to some of us. We may ask, “Aren’t leaders supposed to talk? Isn’t that part of leading the group?” And the answer is yes. Yes, you are supposed to talk, but no, you are not to dominate the conversation or answer every question before the students can speak. While many leaders have tons of wisdom and insight to bring to the table and share with students, we need to remember that people (especially students) need the space to process, think, and talk for themselves.

I have often heard leaders say, “My students don’t talk in small group.” To which I often reply, “Are you giving them the opportunity to do so?” In our small groups we must intentionally allow our students to talk for at least 70% of the time, and allow for our times of talking to be focused on guiding and shepherding them to think through application and their personal walk with Jesus.

This isn’t to say that you set up a timer and only talk for an allotted timeframe, nor is it saying that this balance must always stay the same. There will be times you talk more and times you talk much less. But what we must do is find a balance that allows our students to grow, wrestle with, and apply Biblical truths to their lives. They don’t always need another speaker, but instead need someone who will guide them, ask helpful questions, listen to their answers, and give meaningful insight when needed.

Ask open ended questions.

This goes right back to the previous point about thinking through how we engage and direct conversations. And one the best ways to do this is ask open ended questions instead of “yes or no” style questions. Ask questions that will cause students to think through and process what they heard. Ask a bunch of “why and how” questions. Don’t settle for a simple answer; ask a follow-up question that encourages a student to explain how they arrived at that conclusion. Doing this not only allows for students to continue to talk, but it also challenges them to think through why they believe what they believe and how it relates to their present reality. Another way to ask open ended questions comes in the form of application. Asking students how the topic, truths, or certain points relate to their lives and how they can implement them will give you multiple responses and opportunities to challenge and guide them in their walk with Jesus.

Pray with and for one another.

Spending intentional time praying with and for your small group will make the time with them all the more special and unique. This will not only bring your group together but it will strengthen the bonds you are building. It will help your group to grow and pour into one another and it will help to develop their faith and relationship with Jesus. Prayer is an intimate time and creating an intimate, sacred, and safe space for your students will bring a fresh and personal dynamic to your group.

Follow up and additional connection.

If something important or meaningful is brought up in small group time, make sure to follow up with the student or students. For instance, if a student shares about a struggle they are having, text them during the week to see how they are doing and how things went. If your group commits to a daily devotional time, do a group check in during the week to see if they have been able to keep up with their commitment. By following up and checking in with your students you will allow for relationships to deepen and become more than just a youth group connection. It will be something that unites your group and allows you to be a strong voice for truth in their lives.

It is also helpful to realize that these moments of connection don’t have to be only from things we hear about in small group. Intentionally connecting with your students outside of youth group is important. This doesn’t have to be an every day and every moment type of thing, but something where you are intentionally doing life with your students. Consider taking students shopping with you. Frequent places where your students work to connect with them. Pray for them. Reach out to them to go grab a small group dinner or dessert. These types of connections will enable you to continue pouring into them and helping them grow and mature.

How to Host a Successful Fall Kickoff

Schools are starting back up. Fall sports have begun. Homework is already beginning to take up time during the evening. And for youth groups, there are plans for the fall, what programming will look like, and thoughts about how to start the year off well.

As we begin thinking about the fall, many of us will host some type of celebration or kickoff party to commence the beginning of our fall programming. And with thinking through a kickoff there is probably a deep desire to do something bigger and better than ever before because over the past year we have not been able to do what we considered to be “normal programming.” But in thinking critically through a kickoff for the fall, it is helpful not just to think bigger and better, but to think about what is going to be sustainable, missional, and helpful for directing our students toward deeper discipleship-oriented relationships with Jesus. Today, my hope is to provide you with a few helpful ideas for hosting a successful fall kickoff.

Create a welcoming environment.

This is huge when it comes to programming in general, but even more so at the kickoff to your fall semester. We want students to come to our programs and know they are welcomed and loved. So creating an environment that is shaped for them and where they know that they have a place will generate momentum and continuity. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Have volunteers, adults and students alike, who actually seek out and connect with students who attend.
  • Have a welcome table where students sign in but not merely for attendance. Think about doing a raffle or giveaway to generate momentum.
  • Connect students with peers from their schools and small groups. You’re now fostering an environment of community and relationships that will continue each week.
  • Encourage your leaders to connect with their students and reestablish relationships. Nothing says “you matter and are loved” than someone remembering your name and asking, “how are you doing?”

Have activities and games.

You don’t need to go crazy and have inflatables or a “Fear Factor” style event when you kickoff the semester. These may be fun for a few but I want to encourage you to think about activities and games that will appeal to a broader group of students. A few ideas include: 9 Square, GaGaBall, Minute to Win It games, a small group scavenger hunt competition, yard games, and board games. Utilizing some of these ideas together will generate a ton of excitement but also flexibility for your students to enjoy an event that appeals to a broader group.

Have food.

I firmly believe that food is a must at student events, even weekly gatherings. Food helps to build community, it generates conversation, and brings people together. For a kickoff event consider grilling out, having walking tacos, or even an ice cream social. These moments will create the type of environment that brings people together and helps generate the atmosphere you’re looking for.

Utilize parents and church leaders.

One of my favorite things to do at large student events is to bring parents and church leaders in. This does a multitude of things but a few key aspects include:

  • Showing your students that they matter to the church. Having church leadership present displays a heart for students and shows them that they are the church.
  • It communicates your heart for families. When you bring parents into student ministry it shows that your heart and vision are not only for students but for families and the church.
  • It helps parents and church leaders to see what student ministry is all about. It’s an opportunity to show the necessity and vibrancy of student ministry to those who may not see it all the time.
  • This will allow your volunteers to do what they need to: be with their students. You’re empowering your leaders to lead and at the same time allowing parents and church leadership to witness the discipleship process firsthand. This in and of itself is a huge win.

Connect small groups and leaders.

This is a pivotal time in your ministry as you prepare to kickoff the fall semester because it gives you an opportunity to connect your students with their leaders. This is a prime moment to help your leaders and students begin to reconnect or begin to build relationships that will continue throughout the year and potentially longer. It is an opportunity to begin building and strengthening the discipleship process by intentionally putting your students and leaders together and allowing them to grow as a group.

Cast the vision and heart of the ministry.

Take this time to appropriately talk about student ministries. This is a perfect opportunity for you to share your heart and the vision for the ministry. Doing this helps students, leaders, and parents hear your heart and passion, and also the purpose and direction of the ministry. You are helping to shape, create, and direct the ministry which is ideal for your people. Doing this will create a framework and consistent direction for you and your team.

Tips for Hosting Great Leader Meetings

Our fall program is about to start up and that means we are having our annual team training. We bring together our leaders from all aspects of student ministry and gather for four hours of training together. Now you may have started that last sentence saying “that sounds awesome” but as you got to the end you probably thought something like, “four hours…are you nuts?!”

I know it sounds like a long time but today I want to share with you a few tips about why I think it works. These are tips that we don’t only embody at our fall training but incorporate year round, and I believe it’s the thoughtfulness you will read about in these tips that make our training successful. And as an answer to your follow-up question, no, we don’t do four hours of training every time we gather…we aren’t crazy! It is just that one. So, here are some tips that I think will be helpful for your next training session.

Make it inviting.

How do you make a meeting invitational aside from asking people to come? Think about the setting, ambiance, and attraction. When we host training at any point, we try not to have it be at the church but instead in homes. It makes the meeting more inviting and comfortable because of the setting and location.

Another way to make it inviting is by having food. This may seem like a simple touch but food really does add value to any meeting. It helps people open up, it sets a tone, and it shows that you care. But let me offer some advice about food: don’t do typical youth group fare. Look to up the game because these are your leaders and without them you wouldn’t have a program. Even if you can only afford a few bags of candy, spring for the Hershey Nuggets instead of the store brand. It will communicate value, worth, and appreciation to your people.

A final way to make it invitational is to consider having a time of fellowship, activities, and/or a meal together. Our fall training is hosted by an amazing family who affords us their whole home that includes a pool. So for the end of our training we host a lunch for our leaders and families followed by a time for everyone to swim. It’s a blast! We have kids, students, and adults engaging in fellowship and enjoying time together. If you don’t have a pool, bring yard games or different activities to bring people together.

Make it informational.

As you work through meetings there has to be a purpose to why you are there and what you are talking about. Whether it’s programmatic changes, generational training, or other updates you may have, take time to talk through information that is important to your program. This shows your leaders that there are always growth areas and opportunities for everyone to develop.

Some ways to make this more team-oriented and inviting can include:

  • Have volunteers lead training on topics that they are both passionate and knowledgeable about.
  • Talk about topics that are relevant to students and culture.
  • Make the informational time interactive through question and answer sessions, games, small group discussions, or even by bringing in a guest speaker.

Make it relational and have fun.

I love to build in times for fellowship during training. I make sure to keep the beginning time open to talk, eat food, and fellowship. One of the best things to do during training is to incorporate a meal or food to some degree. If it’s breakfast time get some pastries, do a pancake bar, and make sure to have coffee and tea. If it’s lunch or dinner grill out, have a s’mores bar, or a baked potato bar. Whenever you provide food I would encourage you to think of things outside of what you normally do for students (i.e. walking tacos, pizza, etc.). This shows your leaders that you value and appreciate them.

Another great option for fellowship is to include various fun activities like a fire pit, swimming, yard games, a karaoke contest, team competitions, or even a friendly game of 9 Square. These moments not only allow for your leaders to have fun and release stress but also to connect with one another.

Make it creative.

As you think through training and what it can look like, try to make it creative and not the same training you have done year in and year out. Have different types of team building activities, bring in different people to lead, change up the location and ambiance, or make it a themed training. When you get creative it makes training more inviting and intentional, and it will help make your leaders desire to be a part of what you are doing.

Incorporate prayer and worship.

Whenever we are facilitating a training we always need to remember why we are doing what we are doing. We are simply functioning as disciple-makers and shepherds who have been entrusted to care for His people. As such we should be bathing any training or gathering in prayer and worshiping God because of all He has done and will do. Praying over the year, the ministry, students, and families helps us to shift our focus and remember that this only accomplished through Christ. This allows for us to rejoice in, trust, and acknowledge God’s control and know that the year and everything that happens is all a part of His plan.

Tips for Recruiting Volunteers

Summer trips are wrapping up, the final vacations are commencing, and youth ministries are preparing for the fall. And as we prepare for fall programming many of us are working to finalize and recruit volunteers. Each year we are inevitably faced with the need for new volunteers for a host of reasons. Whether you took over a ministry and volunteers left, your ministry has grown, or volunteers have just stepped back, we all know the pain, panic, and difficulty that comes with seeking out volunteers. In this post I want to provide some ideas to help you grow your team and recruit volunteers who are right for your ministry.

Start early.

This is something we should strive to do. The sooner you start recruiting the less you need to scramble as the next semester or school year approaches. It also gives you the opportunity to truly find people who are committed to the ministry and the vision of the ministry. It affords you greater flexibility and opportunity because you have more time to think critically about who becomes a volunteer and where they will fit.

Ask someone else with connections to help.

This is something I’ve learned to rely on greatly in my last few years of ministry. Some people are fantastic at networking and knowing individuals and their gifting. Our senior pastor’s wife is that person for me. She sends me tons of names of people but includes insight as to why they would be valuable for our ministry. Now it is important in utilizing someone who has this insight to help them know your needs, qualifications for leaders, and the vision of the ministry. This will help in the filtering process and give you more quality candidates to choose from.

Lean into parents.

Parents can make really good volunteers. Some student ministries utilize them and others don’t. It all depends on the program, the vision and purpose, and the relationships between parents and students. Parents bring a ton of insight, wisdom, and a desire to see students grow and because of this, they can be incredibly valuable to the ministry. Many of them are also available during youth group time because they have already carved that time slot out of their schedule.

Now I will say this: it probably isn’t prudent to have a student’s parent be their small group leader. For some families this may work, but for a large majority of them, the student may shut down and not feel comfortable sharing all the time. So if you are going to utilize parents, be thoughtful in where and why you place them where you do. Have conversations with parents and their student and consider what would be the best win for your ministry.

Utilize your current volunteers.

This is a great opportunity for you to lean into your team and allow them to provide insight for the ministry. If you have leaders, ask them who would be a good fit as a new leader. Ask them if they know people who would do well in student ministry. Ask them who they would recommend. They know your heart and vision for the program and they are invested in students. Because of that, they can provide wisdom and insight into who you should be asking.

Another great opportunity would be to ask them to do the recruiting. Having that personal connection means a ton and it allows for your leaders to truly lead outward. They become excited about the program and you are elevating their leadership status and giving them the trust they deserve.

Ask former volunteers.

This is something we should consider each year. Volunteers stop serving for a variety of reasons, and we should remember that they were and still are capable leaders. A helpful place to start when it comes to recruiting volunteers is to start with those who have already served. I have had leaders who faithfully served for four years and then took time off, but promised to be back after a time of refreshment. You may also have former volunteers just waiting in the wings to be asked, and I want to encourage you to do so. Even if they cannot volunteer, you are making personal connections and reestablishing relationships which could lead you to someone else through a connection with your former leader.

Engage in personal conversations.

This is one that will require much of your time but it is arguably the most important and beneficial. It is often through a personal ask that you will be able to recruit more volunteers because it establishes a connection, allows you to share your heart, and it highlights a need. These conversations will take time but they will generate results. Whenever you are afforded the opportunity to meet or talk to someone, I suggest that you take it and leverage those opportunities to discuss what it means to volunteer and why it is worth it. These are moments that will greatly benefit you and your team as you engage with people and they are able to get to know you, your vision, and your passion.

Go old school.

This isn’t something I default to because studies prove that personal conversations and connections generate better results, but we cannot deny that sometimes in order for people to fill a need they need to be made aware that there is one. Some of the ways that we can share about a need include bulletin announcements or on your pre-service slides, announcements from the stage or pulpit, and emailing or cold calling people. This may sound like a lot of work that may not generate a lot of results, but they may generate some, and some is better than none.

A final word of advice. So often I see the need for recruiting new volunteers happen when a new pastor or youth leader takes over. The reason for this is volunteers step back when a pastor or beloved staff member leaves. While I totally understand the why behind this, we as youth workers must seek to leave better. We may not intend our volunteers to leave a program because we do, but they can and will unless we do better.

I believe what we must be doing is looking to build a program that isn’t dependent upon any one person, but instead built on Christ. I tell people often that my desire is to have a program that isn’t about me or my staff, but that students come because they have leaders who love them and disciple them, and a place that is safe for them to hear about Christ. By doing this and saying this our leaders will realize the program isn’t about us but about leading students to Jesus and hopefully will incur a better attitude and longevity in their service, and better set up the incoming leader for success. Look to build a program that isn’t built upon ourselves but on Christ, and speak truth into your people before, during, and after your tenure and help them to continue to stay and move forward with their students.