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.

5 Ways to Make Students Feel Known

Our students are craving authentic relationships with adults who love and care for them, and we have the privilege of stepping into that space. Students are longing for people to support them and be with them, but how do we do that well?

There are literally hundreds of ways you can love and care for students, and honestly within your own ministry you will have ways that work for your group alone. But if you find yourself scratching your head and asking, “How do I do this well?” I want to offer five quick and easy ways you can make students feel known, loved, and valued each week.

These shouldn’t be the only ways you do this, but if you put these five into action they will serve as a catalyst for continued growth and opportunities to speak into the lives of your students.

Know their names.

There is such power in knowing someone’s name and being able to call them by it. I love the passage in John 20:11-18 after Jesus’ resurrection when He calls Mary by her name. It changes everything.

Mary is completely distraught after finding that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. Unbeknownst to her, Jesus shows up and has a conversation with her. For whatever reason, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until He says her name. And in that moment, everything changed for Mary. She had hope. There was no more fear. There was a future where before she lived in the past. Love overwhelmed her where fear used to reign. She had purpose, an identity, and a Savior.

When we know the names of students it changes everything and lets them know that they have a place where they are loved, known, and desired.

Show hospitality.

When students come to your program, do they know they are loved, valued, and wanted? Does it feel welcoming and safe? One of the best things you can do is have people love and welcome your students and families as they arrive. Have people greeting who can simply say hi and direct people. Equip and empower your snack team to love and engage with your students. These moments can change lives and make students feel like part of the family.

We have an amazing older couple who come in and bake chocolate chip cookies and pretzels for our café. But recently we have asked them to actually work the café, and they have accepted the challenged and excelled at it. They recently approached me and said, “Nick, we get to sit and talk with students and they tell us about their day and all the weight they are carrying. And you know what? We just sit and listen and tell them we love them. Then we pray with them. And guess what? They keep coming back to talk to us!” Those types of moments, when we show students hospitality by showing them Jesus, change lives.

Listen well.

One of the best ways you can value students, and honestly everyone else too, is by listening well. When a student is talking to you, listen fully to what they are saying. Don’t listen to offer answers. Don’t listen to give advice. Don’t listen only when it’s interesting. Listen to all of what they are saying.

Students can tell right away if you are engaged by how you listen and respond to them. So show them you care by listening well and being wholly present. Look to listen to learn and understand. Listen to know more about them. And listen with love, grace, and truth. When you listen well, students know that they matter and it affords you great opportunities and privilege to speak truth into their lives.

Have authentic conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with listening but takes it a step further. Listening is incredibly helpful and necessary but actually engaging in authentic conversations will further help students feel know and cared for. When you listen well it enables you to respond well. As you engage with students ask good questions, show them you care by how you respond, validate them and their feelings, challenge them, care for them, and share life with them. When you allow for those aspects to highlight your conversations with them, you are giving them inherent worth and value through your authenticity and transparency.

Be for students.

This final thought is one we would all agree on. Of course we are for students because we are in student ministry. We host events, train leaders, teach the Bible, come up with crazy fun games, study for hours, go to students’ games and events, and eat way too much junk food. We would say that these things and more highlight that we are for students.

But let me ask you a question: would your students say or know that you are for them? I am not casting doubt that you are for them, but simply asking if they know you are. Often we can assume that our actions and conversations highlight one thing but how others perceive or receive them, they might say another.

It would be beneficial to ask some of your leaders and key students if they would say you are for students. To ask them how you can do that better. It may not be a response you want or are looking for but it will give you insight into how you are presenting and engaging, and perhaps what could be done differently. Be for your students. Love well, engage with them, step in the gap, and be willing to change things if necessary.

Helping Seniors Move Beyond Youth Group

Have you noticed a decline in students attending church after they graduate from high school? Have you observed a lack of interest in your graduates when it comes to being a part of the church? Have your seniors or graduates disconnected or walked away from the church?

I don’t think this is a phenomena that is central to only my students or even to this day and age. Studies consistently show that students will walk away from the church post graduation if they are not connected well and don’t have consistent spiritual mentors walking with them. So what are we doing to help students remain in the church post-graduation? Today my desire is to hopefully share some insight and tips that may help retain your students beyond high school. I am not perfect at this and I am still working through all of this in my own ministry. But perhaps these thoughts will help all of us critically think through and develop ways and opportunities to retain our seniors and graduates.

Connect them with college-aged peers.

In talking with current seniors it became apparent how difficult the transition to college can be. They don’t have the same friend group, some of their peers won’t be around as they go to different schools, and they are trying to break into social circles. All of these paired with the normal tensions that come from trying to be part of a new dynamic and social group make this a difficult time of transition for students.

By connecting them with college-aged students you are helping to break some of the barriers that exist. Set up social gatherings to connect students with one another. Encourage your college student leaders to reach out to the seniors. Host seniors at the college ministry throughout the year. These moments will help students connect with one another and ease the transition.

Connect them with college ministry and leaders.

This is something you can do regardless of whether seniors are staying in your community or going away for school or work. If students are staying in the area, look to connect them with the college ministry and leaders in your church. Find ways to connect them and facilitate fellowship to grow community and relationships. The more you can connect them and build intentional moments for relational community the better connected they will be and the greater the potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

Should your student(s) go away for college, talk to them about the importance of connecting to a college ministry and to a local church. Connect with people to the best of your ability whether via networks or social media connections to find options for your students. Also consider setting up an account on Every Student Sent to find options for your students regardless of where they decide to go. If you are able, help build the connection by reaching out to the ministries and churches for your student and helping them know and connect with the student that is going to be heading to the new community.

Find ways to connect them with broader church life.

Often when students graduate from youth group they take one of their first real steps into church life. Many students don’t or won’t attend church services for a litany of reasons (it’s boring, it doesn’t relate to them, their friends don’t go, etc.). But if you go above and beyond to help them see church as more than a singular program or ministry you will be doing them a huge service.

Set up times for your whole youth program to be a part of the church services. Encourage your worship leaders and preachers to connect and relate to your students throughout each service. Have small groups attend various church events including social and serving opportunities. Challenge your students to serve and be a part of body life. Individually these aren’t fix-alls, but together they afford opportunities for your students, and your seniors especially, to connect and grow in the broader church life.

Help them see what community looks like.

Students love community but often struggle to identify healthy Christian community outside of youth group circles. Look to challenge them to engage in various aspects of community outside of youth group. Encourage them to jump into a small group outside of your program. Encourage their youth group leaders to connect them in larger circles that they are involved in. Help them to go to and participate in church services and to begin serving. When students serve they take ownership and when they have ownership they are more prone to be involved for the long term. Finally, connect them with church staff and leadership outside of yourself. Doing this helps them to connect, grow, and see the bigger picture. This generates buy-in and understanding which will help them know they belong and are loved.

Challenge your students to make their faith their own.

This should be something we are encouraging our students to do throughout their time in youth group, but this is pivotal for student who are graduating. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your seniors is the ability for them to test the waters, ask questions, and apply their faith to their lives. So seek to teach them how faith is lived out. Show them the ways that their faith transforms them. Walk with them as they ask questions and challenge the status quo. Doing this well will help your students take tangible steps toward living as an authentic disciple of Jesus and will allow for their faith to become real for them.

Effectively Using Social Media

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

Know your purpose for using social media.

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

Think through which apps you will use.

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

Have a social media posting schedule.

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

Post at appropriate times.

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

Leverage your content to reflect your vision.

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

Incorporate photos and stories of your people.

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

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:

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 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.

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

Culturally and religiously we find ourselves in a complicated and challenging moment, whether brought about by the movement of time, our political climate, or pressure from influences outside the church. Things might feel different, unsettled and uncomfortable. You may have found political or theological disagreements to have fostered deep rifts between your family or friends. Perhaps someone who once walked closely with you on your spiritual journey has now walked away from the faith completely.

However you are feeling in this current moment, and whatever you are dealing with spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, will impact your ministry. It may not be sudden and obvious, but over time, our experiences and thoughts begin to shape how we speak and act. Left ignored, they can lead to places we might think we’d never end up.

I want to encourage you, if you do feel like you’re struggling in this moment, questioning where to go and what to do, there are some active steps you can take. It isn’t a fix-all, easy answer, because the difficult times take perseverance and work. But it is worth it to care for your soul, to dig into the difficult places, and to do the hard work when it comes to your relationship with Jesus and the ministry to which you have been called.

If you missed our encouragement post from September 2020, you may want to start there. Then read on for some practical ways you can deal with doubt and discouragement in this season of life.

Pursue Scripture first.

There are a lot of places to seek help in challenging times. There are also a lot of voices to which we can listen. Some will be truthful and helpful, while others will not. Some will pull us toward Christ, while others may guide us in a different direction. In seasons of struggle, it is imperative to look to Scripture first, and to ensure that the voices you are internalizing are voices of godly truth. If you know God’s word in your heart, you will quickly be able to determine his voice from the others.

In as great as self-help books and videos can be, do not give up reading Scripture on your own and seeking it for help and direction. That is not to say that books and other resources shouldn’t be utilized, but remaining in Scripture will help you to determine if other sources are truthful, helpful, and correct. Part of our daily battle is keeping our mind and heart focused on God and his ways. This can be a struggle, especially in the hard times, which is why fighting to make time in Scripture a priority is so important.

Seek godly counsel.

In difficult seasons it can be easy to draw inward, whether we don’t want to admit how we’re feeling, we don’t trust others to understand, or we feel like we need to deal with it on our own. Add the element of less human interaction due to pandemic-induced lock-downs and restrictions, and it can be doubly easy to keep things to yourself. Now more than ever it is vital to let people in.

Whether you talk with friends or a mentor whom you respect, or you see a counselor or therapist, it is imperative to bring others into your life. Talking through your thoughts and feelings is important, as is getting an outside, godly perspective from someone you trust. Discussion can help bring clarity as well as help you feel understood and heard. Sometimes we can get something in our heads and hearts that may not be accurate or helpful. Talking with someone you trust, and who will bring a Christ-honoring, biblical perspective can help you sort through truth from lies.

Satan likes to make us feel isolated and alone, both from each other and from God. Isolation in these relationships can lead to isolation holistically, which can pull us in a dark direction. Resist the urge to battle alone and instead bring in others who can walk with you, support you, and speak the truth.

Work through it.

I think sometimes in Christianity we can lean on quick, “easy” answers. Things like, “because the Bible say so” or “that’s what God wants” can roll off our tongues and through our minds with little effort. But the truth is that difficult seasons call for more than just easy answers. They call for wrestling with reality, asking tough questions, and seeking answers that can stand up under the hardest of life’s circumstances. We don’t do ourselves, or others, any favors by speaking and internalizing pat, cliche answers that feel good in the easy moments.

Internalizing simplistic ideas about God and faith can leave us feeling empty when times get tough. Things can easily unravel when those simple ideas or pat answers don’t make sense or feel impertinent. The good news is that God and his word can stand up to the worst this world can throw at us, but it may require more work on our part to uncover them. This is why I want to encourage you to work through the difficult seasons and hard questions. You may not arrive at an easy answer, but I know that God has met me in every painful, heart-wrenching moment and the rich truth of Scripture has spoken to my troubled soul time and time again.

This approach doesn’t make things easier. In fact, nothing will make this life and its struggles easier. But it has made me stronger and more resilient to face the darkness. Rooting my life and faith in something eternally substantive gives me hope even when my surroundings and circumstances feel bleak. When I feel like giving up I know I can’t because I believe what he says is real and true.

In this season of life, wherever it finds you, lean into Jesus and your community. Do the hard work to fight the good fight, for yourself and those to whom you minister. May God encourage your heart, mind, and soul, and may he empower you to do the work to which you have been called.