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.

How to Bring About Change Well

Over this past year there have been many changes in student ministry. Maybe coming out of 2020 you were rethinking the rhythms of your program. Perhaps this past year gave you new insight and you have decided to shift various programmatic features. Or maybe you have realized that there are areas that aren’t working and need to be changed or even removed. Regardless of what changes, change happens.

But when we change things, we must be intentional in how and why we are doing so. Change is never easy and can lead to tension or frustration for various reasons. Today I want to offer you some insight to consider before you begin to change things.

Before we get to the insight may I suggest one bit of advice? Cover whatever you are considering changing with purposeful prayer and intentional insight from people you trust. Doing this before you begin to effect change will help you seek God’s insight, vision, and direction for you and the ministry you lead. It will remove the pride or tension we may feel and help us to be the effective tools of Jesus that we are called to be. When we put that premise into action, then we can begin to work out these next aspects in bringing about change.

Overcommunicate.

This is one of the best things you can do when you are working toward change. Communication is key, but we always hear about someone who has missed the communication. Often that is because we communicate in our typical ways through our normal channels. But when we are changing things–plans, vision, or functionality of the program–we must make sure to go above and beyond to communicate what is happening. Communicate through your normal channels, but also look at other ways to communicate what is happening.

Recently we changed the vision for our student ministry program. We sent out our normal newsletter with the update in it, we posted to our social media channels, and we talked with our students about it. But we also decided to put together a video explaining what was changing and the rationale behind our decision. We then sent that to all the parents via email, posted about it again on social media, held meetings to explain what was happening, and continued to use the language in all aspects of our communication going forward. When you want people to know about a change, the more you talk about it, the more they will know it.

It isn’t just about sharing what is changing though. We must make sure to clearly and succinctly communicate the rational, the heart, the vision, and the why behind the change. People will always ask questions, and our communication allows for us to answer some of those questions before they are even asked. So think through how you clearly communicate why things are changing, what you are hoping the change evokes, and how you plan to sustain the change going forward.

Know the why.

I said in the prior point that people will always have questions, and the big question that most people will ask is “why.” Why are you doing this? Why is it important? Why are you changing things? Why are you getting rid of something we love? Why is this the new thing we are doing? Why can’t we just keep doing what we were doing?

“Why” asks really big questions when you think about it, and it shows that people want to understand and know what is happening. So when you are thinking through changing things, consider how you can answer that question. Just changing things to change things isn’t healthy or beneficial. In fact it evokes fear, anxiety, and tension because no one knows what is happening. But when you know why things are changing and are able to clearly and thoughtfully communicate that to your people, you will be able to address the “why questions” well.

Cast vision well.

The next step in evoking change is making sure that you cast the vision well. It is unhealthy to just change things for the sake of doing something different, but when you can explain the rationale and talk about where you are going, it helps your people to generate excitement and anticipation as they jump on board with you. When you know what you are doing and can clearly share that with your people, you will build their desire to be a part of something because they see your passion and excitement for what is changing. When people see your passion and the vision that you have it generates buy-in and it brings people along on the journey with you.

Be intentional and purposeful.

Whenever you are crafting a plan to change things, be intentional with what you are doing. Often, especially when we are starting at a new church or position, we want to change things because we believe we have a better idea or focus or purpose. That may be true, but we have to remember that there were reasons and rationale for how things have been done. We must understand that people have skin in the game when it comes to various aspects that we are looking to change. For others, the things or ideas we are changing means that we are trying to change them because they are so intertwined with how things have been.

So when you seek to change things, be cognizant of other people, their histories, their emotions, and be willing to have important conversations. The more intentional and purposeful you are, the more people will be excited to join you because they see your heart and you allowed for them to be heard and understood.

Stick with it.

There will be times when you want to give up, when you feel frustrated because people don’t seem to want to join the vision. You will feel discouraged because of all the questions and doubts. Students may challenge you because it is going against what they have been used to. But remember that God has called you to be the leader in this moment.

Remember that you sought God’s heart and have listened to Him and trusted mentors to shape and guide what you are changing. It wasn’t something that you approached nonchalantly, but instead intentionally thought through and planned out. Don’t give up or become discouraged, but remember that God is, has, and will continue to use you to evoke change and reach people for the kingdom.

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.

Crafting a Ministry Vision and Purpose

No matter the ministry or setting we are in, it is important for us all to implement a vision and purpose. A vision and purpose will provide clarity, direction, and longevity to a ministry, as well as provide those within it something to buy into and hold onto. It helps ministries to have a focus which will drive everything they do, and it also helps people jump on board and become a part of what’s happening. A vision gives ministries an identity and focus as they pursue a common purpose.

The question before us is how do we do this, and how do we do it well? Today, my desire is to give you insight and direction on how to begin building a vision for your ministry, and also to help you think critically about what your ministry is and how to help make that the focus going forward.

Know the vision of your church.

As you begin to think through the vision and purpose for your ministry, know your church’s vision. Knowing this will allow for your focus to be in alignment with the church overall and to bring consistency and clarity rather than adding another layer of complexity that could lead to confusion. This will also help you to work better with the church leadership overall and make sure that there is continuity within the church.

Center your vision on the Gospel.

Whenever you are developing a vision and gauging input from multiple sources, it is easy to simply see a plan and a desire and run after them. But we cannot forget the central piece to our vision: the Gospel. Without it, we are simply formulating a plan for another program or service, not a ministry. So as you begin to think through what your vision will look like for your ministry let me encourage you to do two things:

  1. Be in constant prayer about what you are doing. It is easy to simply allow prayer to take a back seat in many areas of our lives. But as we seek to clarify, discern, and ultimately implement a vision for a ministry, we must make sure we are seeking out God’s will and direction which is what truly guides and directs us.
  2. Make the Gospel the reason for and center of what you are doing. Remember that out of the Gospel comes everything we do, say, and think, and as such it should guide our visions, purposes, and programs.

Identify the priorities of the ministry.

This is one aspect that can present unique challenges, especially depending on how many avenues of input you have. Often you will hear people champion priorities they desire or that they believe will make or break a ministry. One of the churches I worked at had multiple leaders who were adamant about going back to a summer camp they had gone to when they were in the program. But the camp’s programming didn’t fit with the overall goal of seeking a discipleship-oriented approach to help our students grow. This didn’t mean it was a bad idea, but it needed to be measured and discerned as to whether it fit with the vision of our ministry.

So as you listen, as you seek to identify the priorities, make sure to hold them against the ultimate goal. If you are looking to curate a discipleship-focused ministry, will all aspects meet that goal? If you are looking to cultivate an environment of invitation, will hosting sword drills bring people in? As you think through these priorities make sure you discern what is best for the goal you are running after.

But, just as a quick aside, remember that what may not seem like a good idea to you now, was once someone’s great idea. So don’t simply dismiss away an approach, idea, or philosophy. Instead approach it with love and grace and be willing to listen and walk through those conversations with others.

Don’t rush or allow the process to slow.

This point sounds like it is in conflict with itself, but the main idea I want to get across is this: the process of establishing and implementing a vision and purpose can and will take time. So do not try to rush through the process. If you try to rush the process people will not feel heard. If you rush the process you will miss key components. If you rush the process you may not allow for God to wholly speak into it and simply frame it based on humanistic desires.

But the opposite is also true: do not intentionally slow down the process. Don’t delay out of fear. Don’t pause because you don’t feel like moving ahead. Don’t slow down because it is hard. This process can be difficult because it will force you to wrestle with key thoughts or patterns that you held that may not align with the vision. Or it could be difficult trying to hear and work with everyone. But that is evidence of the necessity of a consistent vision. Without a vision to unite a team, there will always be disunity. But with a clear and worked through vision you will see people rally to it, and all of the hard work will be worth it.

Bring others in.

It is important to bring your staff team, key volunteers, and key students and families into this process. This can look different depending on your ministry context, and that’s okay. Perhaps you want students involved throughout, or maybe just at key points. Or you could want your staff team to engage with key volunteers to gain insight into the planning process.

Regardless of how you bring others in, make sure to listen and hear what they say. They will bring perspectives and insight you may not have considered, but these perspectives could help in shaping a vision and purpose that is Christ-focused and understanding of your ministry context.

Ask key questions.

By asking key questions of yourself and your team, you will be able to begin to see patterns, themes, and consistent values emerge. They may not all be phrased the exact same way, but you will hear and see them as you engage in these conversations. Not only will asking these questions help you to frame the insight you will receive, it will also allow for individuals to speak into the process and be heard. These questions are not the only ones you should ask, but they are ones that will help you begin to identify and frame out a vision for your program.

  • Why does our program meet?
  • What are we offering to our students?
  • What is unique about our program and what we offer?
  • What do we desire our program to be?
  • Who are we trying to reach through our program?
  • What are the key values of our program?
  • What is different between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • What is the same between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • If you were to write out a vision statement for our program, what would it be?
  • If you were to craft purpose statements for each of the times we meet, what would they be?

What is the vision statement for your ministry? What are some ways that you worked to craft it and hone your ministry’s purpose?

Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”

This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.

I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.

Listen well.

Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.

Include parents.

Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.

In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.

Follow up.

Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.

Seek clarity.

Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.

At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.

Know your stuff.

So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.

So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 3]

Over the past two weeks we have been talking about sex and relationships and how to have godly conversations about these topics with your students. We have looked at some plenary processes and conversations that need to happen and at how to approach the actual conversations with your students.

This week our desire is to provide some passages of Scripture to utilize in your teachings. Not all of these passages have to do with sex per se. Some will focus on relationships, others on intimacy, and others on how to actually care for one another.

Genesis 2:4-25

It is important when talking about relationships and intimacy to start at the beginning of God’s Word to help us understand why we desire these things. This passage of Scripture highlights how humankind is created in God’s image and because of that we desire relationships and intimacy. God is a relational God who truly desires intimacy with His people. God created Adam and Eve to have an intentional and personal relationship with them, and for their relationship with one another to reflect God’s relationship with them. This passage helps us to understand that from the beginning we were designed to be in relationships with one another and that these relationships should represent the intimate relationship we have with God.

Hebrews 13:4

In this passage the author of Hebrews is giving concluding exhortations to their readers, and it is within these challenges that they briefly speak about marriage and sex. But what they say is exceptionally important as we engage this conversation with our students. The author states, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” We may simply read this and give a rousing amen to the passage, but let’s pause and reflect on what is being said.

First, we are to honor marriage. Why? Because marriage is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. When we enter into marriage we are engaging in a union that God uses to define His relationship with the church. Our marriages are to be a reflection of God’s love to the world.

We are then challenged to keep the marriage bed pure. I don’t think the author simply placed that phrase here because it sounded good or seemed logical. Instead, I believe the author knew that humankind’s propensity would be to do anything but honor the marriage bed. The author knows we are broken and prone to wander even from the one that God has designed us for. So marriage and sex are to be held in honor both toward God and our partner. We are not to stray or wander from it because to do so would be to dishonor and harm our spouse and God. We are sinning and grieving not only a person but our Creator who has designed us for these relationships.

1 Corinthians 13

This is a passage that often gets a lot of criticism and critique in Christian circles. Not necessarily because of what it says, but because of how it has been taught and used as leverage in relationships. I have heard people say that this passage teaches us to be quiet and simply take what comes our way, I have witnessed people use this passage to advocate staying in abusive relationships, and still others I have heard use this passage to rationalize away their sins and promiscuity. But a true reflection on this passage highlights that love is not about dismissing sin or condoning abuse, but instead is about honoring and reflecting Christ in our relationships.

We are told in 1 John 4:16 that God is love. Therefore, when we read Paul’s challenge to love in 1 Corinthians 13, we understand that we are being called to model Christ in our relationships. God doesn’t call us to a passive relationship with others but instead into a passionate and vibrant relationship that mirrors Christ to one another. Love isn’t something that is fleeting or something we fall into and out of like a pothole on a highway, but instead is a lifelong commitment to honor and pursue one another as Christ does for each of us. It is about edifying, exhorting, challenging, correcting, celebrating, and honoring one another as God does the same for us.

This is also a great passage to talk about how our relationships should look not only with our spouse but with other people in our lives. It should help us understand how we should speak to and about one another. It should cause us to think through and talk about consent and honoring one another. It gives us time and space to think about how we are treating others and if we are reflecting Christ in our actions, thoughts, and words.

Matthew 5:27-30

When it comes to lust and purity, we must understand that we are not simply talking about behavior modification. We can try to change habits and behaviors all day long, but if we don’t focus on the heart then we will always stumble and falter. Instead of simply telling people to dress modestly, bounce their eyes, install pornography blockers on devices, or to not lust after one another, we should be looking at our hearts and helping others to grow and mature in Christ. This will then work itself out into our actions and thoughts.

None of those ideas are necessarily wrong or bad, but they are only about behavior and we should focus on the heart first then the behaviors. In this passage, Jesus talks about how simply looking at someone with lust is adultery. It isn’t the physical action of sleeping with someone but the action and thoughts of the heart that lead us to adultery. He is telling us to handle the internal issue and then work on the external. So as you teach this with your students, focus more on the heart than the “external fixers.” Working on what is wrong with the heart will allow for greater success in correcting the behavior than simply focusing on the behavior alone.

Song of Solomon 7:6-12

Sex is not a bad thing. In fact, throughout Scripture we see that sex is actually meant to be enjoyed and that it is a good thing. We have an entire portion of the Bible in Song of Solomon that is literally a book on relationships and sex. But so often churches present sex as something that isn’t enjoyable or that is taboo. What we need to help our students understand is that sex is to be enjoyed and that it is something we should look forward to. That doesn’t mean we should simply rush out and have sex with whomever we please whenever we want. But we should know that God has designed us as sexual beings who can enjoy sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage.

These passages are not all-encompassing nor are they the only passages we should use. These passages represent a way to begin the conversation and walk with our students through a biblical understanding of relationships and sex. Our prayer for you and your students is that you don’t shy away from the hard conversations, but rather meet them head on and present a biblical response and understanding to help navigate them. Know that these past three posts are intended to help you prepare and engage these conversations, and we are here to walk with you and process through how to start or continue the conversations. Thank you for stepping into the hard moments and being willing to talk to your students about how the Gospel both informs and guides us in understanding sex and relationships.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off a multipart series designed to help youth workers with talking about sex and relationships. Our goal with this series is to help us all think about what we are communicating, how we are communicating, and how we can best minister to our students.

Much of this conversation was brought about by a recent article by Pew Research on the number of Christians who are having sex outside of marriage, but also because our students need to hear a godly approach to relationships, intimacy, and sex. Students are curious (and rightly so since we are designed for relationships and intimacy) about relationships, sex, and intimacy but the world only offers a corrupt view that isn’t healthy nor helpful. Our hope is that as we think deeply and biblically about this topic, we will not only help our students develop a healthy understanding but also see the beauty of God’s design in relationships.

The focus of our points last week were largely centered around how we should begin to engage the this conversation. Much of it was plenary in the planning process and was all about making sure that the communication was clear and that our hearts understood and were prepared for the conversations that we would be having. Today, I want to give insight into how to actually have the conversation and to provide you with tips and ways to talk about this topic.

Next week we will be sharing a few different Scripture passages that are helpful not only in talking about sex, but also highlighting what intimacy truly is and how God has designed us for true intimacy.

Use correct terminology.

This is a big one that we often don’t even think about. We ascribe nicknames or slang to body parts or sexual actions but in doing so we make it seem childish or unimportant. Many people, like Dr. Jim Burns, advocate for using correct terminology during discussions about the body and sex because it helps in not only understanding but also in cognitive, emotional, and physical development.

It is important to communicate with people about what we are doing because for some families, this could be difficult and awkward. Help others understand by explaining the reasoning and the heart behind this. If you need additional information for families, Burns has two books geared toward families of young children, but which are still incredibly helpful and valuable for those with children of all ages: God Made Your Body and How God Makes Babies. Burns also has helpful material to talk through sexuality and sex with students including Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality.

Identify the awkwardness.

This is a tough topic, and if we are honest it is awkward to talk about. It is hard to talk to our peers about it let alone to students. But as you approach this conversation, just call it as it is. Identify to your group this can be awkward but it is also necessary. Let them know they may hear things that make them want to giggle or may make them look around awkwardly. The purpose isn’t to elevate awkwardness but instead to understand how God created us and why sex is important to talk about as Christians.

Also, if certain words or descriptions make you giggle, laugh, or even smirk your students will see it and you need to check that. If you make it awkward or uncomfortable you are only adding to the distraction. It may be awkward but you shouldn’t contribute to the awkwardness through your responses, teachings, or actions.

Do not make light of this topic or surrounding ones.

For some reason, church leaders love to make light of this conversation. Whether it is because it is awkward for them, they don’t know what to say, or perhaps are ill-equipped to have this conversation, this should not be an excuse to make light of the topic. Recently a pastor was recorded making horrible comments about how women should dress, conduct themselves, and sexually please their husbands and it has attracted much critique and backlash as it should. Sadly this isn’t a rare occurrence, and I have seen this happen often in student ministry.

Often you will hear youth leaders talk about things like grooming habits, cleanliness and how if you want to attract a mate you better use D.O. so you don’t have B.O., dressing to impress, modest is hottest, be a Proverbs 31 girl, and so much more. What we don’t often see or pause to understand is that these comments actually cause hurt, body image issues, a false understanding what sex is and why we have it, and ultimately destroy our witness for Christ. Don’t mock or make light of this conversation but instead treat it with the dignity and respect it deserves.

Don’t be graphic about sex.

This is similar to not being crass or joking about sex or related components, but different enough that we felt we should state it separately. Just because we communicated that we are talking about sex and the components that make it up does not afford us an opportunity to be overly graphic. We don’t need to over-glorify nor vilify sex when we talk about it. We don’t need to put up images, or explain graphic actions, or go into detail about our own sex lives. Doing so may actually cause more harm than good, and what we should be doing instead is giving students the opportunity to approach men and women they trust to ask these questions should they have them. A student may have been raped and to graphically talk about rape or intercourse could lead to them feeling unwelcome or less than. So be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

Focus on the heart, not behavior modification.

So often we have looked at behavior modification when it comes to this topic: dress modestly, bounce your eyes, install porn blockers on your devices, follow these clothing guidelines for youth group, wear a rubber band on your wrist. While these aren’t bad ideas, they do not get to the heart of the matter: the heart.

If we simply modify our behavior but don’t look to correct the corrupt nature of our hearts, how can we ever truly change, mature, and honor one another? Instead of looking to change a behavior, use this as an opportunity to help your students change their hearts. Help them to understand how they can honor one another as God designed them. Help them to see that physical beauty isn’t a bad thing. Help them to see that their actions and language mirror what is in their hearts. When we approach this topic in this manner, then we can begin to help them with changes to their behavior because we have intentionally focused on the starting point.

Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Have you ever heard a sex talk that said something along the lines of, “if you wait to have sex, your wedding night will be amazing“? If you have, you perhaps fell victim to some of the incorrect teachings that came from the purity movement–that is not to say everything about it was wrong, but to acknowledge that harm did come from it. Just because you wait doesn’t mean that sex and intimacy will be amazing. It could be, but it isn’t a guarantee. And these are things that the church has taught on for many, many years. But in saying things like this, we are setting people up for failure.

Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that waiting to have sex or avoiding lust or wearing a purity ring will lead to great sex in our marriages. What the Bible does promise is that if we seek to put God first and have an intimate relationship with Him, and allow for that to flow outward in our lives and relationships, then we will find healthy and holistic relationships. We shouldn’t set our people up for failure, but instead be honest and transparent.

Marriage and relationships take work, and even when you wait, sex and intimacy don’t always come naturally or have the Hollywood appeal. So we should stop trying to sell that image and instead look to teach students the beauty, purpose, and spiritual aspects of sex and marriage.

Join us next week as we talk through different passages of Scripture to use when talking about sex and relationships with your students.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 1]

An article and study published by the Pew Research Center titled “Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable” has once again been making the rounds in Christian circles. In some of these circles there is alarm and shock as people assumed Christians have been holding to a higher moral code. In others, people lament and are resigned to the fact it is true. Others include people who place blame upon the church, its teachings, and its leaders for projecting and proclaiming a distorted view of sex and relationships. None of these are necessarily helpful, but all of them carry a measure of truth.

We should be shocked if we have not heard, seen, or known of these statistics. We should lament this statistic and pray for others. We should call out false, corrupted, or distorted teachings and agendas. But the question before us is this: how do we respond? Do we simply proclaim the evils of this world? Do we sound the alarm bells and run to our bunkers? Do we begin a new movement similar to what was taught in the 90s and 2000s as a radical counter approach?

I don’t think any of those options work nor would they be beneficial in the immediate or long term. Instead, I would like to offer a different approach: lovingly teach godly principles as they pertain to relationships, identity, and sex. We should be teaching this in church as a whole, but let’s be honest, if it’s hard for a youth pastor to speak on sex to young people, imagine how hard it is for a senior pastor to do that from the pulpit. I am not saying that is an excuse, but it is a reality, and as such churches shy away from this conversation. But we as student workers have an immense privilege and obligation to share, guide, and love our students as we talk with them about tough topics, including sex and relationships. Over the next couple of weeks I want to share with you some ways to engage this conversation well.

Communicate what you are doing.

As you prepare to share and teach on this, it is highly important to communicate what, how, and why you are doing this. Creating and casting vision for a series on subject matter that is sensitive, has often been mishandled, and will have different value systems between families is one of the most important things you can do. But don’t simply communicate this to families, communicate with your superiors, your volunteers, and your students. Bringing others in will allow you to receive feedback and support as well as guidance. It will also help people to be prepared and ready to talk through sensitive topics.

Approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth.

This is not an easy conversation to initiate nor is it an easy conversation to be a part of. Many of us work with students who have been hurt or abused, students who have seen sex used in wrong ways, students who only know about sex through Hollywood or porn, or students who struggle with relationships because their attraction may not be what the Bible says it should be. Acknowledging these truths, we should approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth. We need to be sensitive to what people are dealing with or what they know in relation to this topic. Don’t laugh at “dumb questions,” and don’t roll your eyes when someone doesn’t understand a term. Seek to offer clarity and help your students understand why this conversation matters.

Be willing to acknowledge the difficulty with this topic.

As pastors and leaders we often try to have all the knowledge and understanding of a topic on which we are teaching. But with this topic there are so many levels, changes in terms, cultural understanding, and evolving education and understanding that we have to acknowledge we aren’t experts. Instead we must lean into the truth of God’s Word as we approach a sensitive topic with grace, love, and truth. We need to be willing to study, listen, and learn as we dig into and prepare for this conversation. This may also mean bringing in others who are experts and who are willing to help us share on the topic. Don’t be afraid to seek help so that you can better speak to your students and address their needs.

Understand this could be a trigger for certain people

We are in a time culturally and spiritually where we are acutely aware of sexual assault and the abuses of power and leadership. Culture and churches alike have experienced a rash of incidents over recent years, and the reality is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. In understanding this, we must acknowledge that there are students, leaders, and parents that have or currently are experiencing abuse or assault. Most studies would actually say that within every student ministry there is at least one victim of sexual assault or worse.

Because of this reality we must be sensitive and understanding in how we approach this conversation. Understand that some people may be working through horrible things and as such, consider having counselors available to talk with students or leaders. Also, whenever possible make both men and women available to talk as it is typically easier for people to talk with someone of the same gender.

Talk about the why.

So often “sex talks” focus on “do this, don’t do that.” But I would encourage us to focus more on the identity piece than the “rules.” When Jesus came to earth it wasn’t about meeting all the rules (in fact His responses to the rich young ruler and the Pharisees declare the exact opposite), it was about finding our identity in Him and allowing the transformation in our hearts to work outward, changing our actions and behaviors.

Students today want to know the “why” behind everything, including our stances on sex, relationships, and marriage. Don’t neglect this important piece in a sea of rules. Why does your church hold the view of sex that it does? Why does it hold the stance on marriage that it does? Where do we find clarity in Scripture and the life of Christ. Make it a point to delve into not just the “what” surrounding sex, but also the “why.”

Highlight that sex isn’t just about the physical action.

This is something I wish I had heard in youth group and, honestly, in our pre-marital counseling. Sex isn’t just about the physical action. It isn’t just about climax. It is about two people coming together in a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual way that is meant to help us understand our intimate relationship with God. Intimacy is more than just a physical action, it is about wholly knowing someone in a way no one else can. It is about understanding and loving someone so deeply that you experience something incredibly special together. As we understand the truth about sex, it helps us to understand the depth and meaning of it, and will allow for our hearts to truly be transformed.

Stop by next week as we continue looking at helpful tips for engaging this conversation.

Helping Families Win: Family Devotions

A new series we will be talking about periodically is called Helping Families Win. Part of our role in leading students includes shepherding families and helping them succeed as they seek to follow Jesus. This series will look at proactive ways we can challenge, encourage, and guide families in helpful ways as they pursue godly living. Today we are going to look at helping families engage in devotions together.

Finding time to be in God’s Word can be difficult for anyone. I think if we were honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that there are seasons when it is difficult for us as adults to spend time investing in our relationship with Jesus. Work, family, stuff at home, yard work, play-dates, being a chauffeur, and trying to get adequate rest seem to overwhelm all hours of our days. Even in this new season of life where many of us are at home and being forced to slow down, we may not have been able to engage as much as we would have liked in our spiritual walk.

It is no secret that our growth as a Christ follower is intrinsically dependent upon how much time we spend in community with Jesus. But what we don’t always realize is that our students see how we engage in our relationship with Jesus and it directly effects how they engage in their relationship with Him. Our students should witness us modeling a relationship with Jesus in how we act and speak, how often we read our Bibles, and by how we allow the truth of the Gospel to permeate our lives.

We also need to model studying God’s Word with our students to help them engage in God’s Word and apply it to their lives. But there is a big question surrounding that: How do we do that, and how do we do it well?

One way to do this would be to actively encourage families to engage in regular family devotions together and leverage it as an opportunity to draw closer together with each other and Jesus. Family devotions do not need to be every day, they don’t have to be boring or childish, and they certainly do not need to be hours long. But they should allow for thoughtful conversation, opportunities for everyone to share and lead, and time of just being loved and supported by those closest to you.

What I would like to do today is offer some helpful tools, resources, and methods for doing devotions as a family that you can apply to your own family and share with families within your ministry.

>> An easy way to encourage families to step into doing devotions is to simply text a devotion out to their family each day. For families who haven’t done devotions together before, this is an easy first step for them to try it out. In fact here are two pre-made texting devotional s you can use: Text Through the Bible and Textable Devotions. As you think through how to apply and use these, I want to offer a couple of suggestions:

  • If you are not currently doing family devotions, start small. Text these out each day and then choose one day a week to talk through them as a family. Try to keep it to a half hour to start, and then see if it develops into something bigger.
  • If you are doing family devotions or have done them, try to incorporate more times that you meet as a family. Try for 2-3 times a week but still keep it roughly half an hour to start and build on it from there.

>> Another great resource is this video by Parent Ministry that gives insight into how to help your students engage in God’s Word and develop healthy spiritual rhythms. It is a quick clip but dripping with truth and helpful ideas.

>> David R. Smith wrote an article on enhancing in-home devotions and he offers some very helpful tools and tips, as well as some resources for you and your family.

>> As families begin to pursue more intentional and engaging opportunities together, it is helpful to give them ways and methods for studying the Bible. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how to do this, so giving resources and ideas on how to study the Bible will be helpful. A few Bible study methods that I find helpful are the O.I.A. Method, the Discovery Bible Study Method, and the SOAP Method. These three methods offer helpful ways to engage with Scripture and help families know how to ask questions as well.

>> Other helpful digital resources include biblegateway.com, www.bible.com, www.openbible.info/topics/, net.bible.org, and www.blueletterbible.org. These websites not only host the Bible in digital formats, but they also have additional resources like commentaries, Bible studies, cross references, maps, and much more. These are helpful in giving parents and families a more in-depth look at God’s Word and helpful insight for answering any questions that develop. It is also important to remember while we may think everyone knows about these websites, that isn’t the case. Families don’t always know about resources or which ones to trust, and by simply recommending them, we are helping share beneficial resources for their family.

Being intentional and pouring into the spiritual growth and development of your family is a priority that we must be running after. My prayer for you is that these resources help you and your family deepen your walk with Jesus, and that we develop families of disciplemakers who are radically changing the world for Jesus.