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.

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

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

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

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

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

A good first aid kit.

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

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

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

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

A flashlight.

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

An alarm clock.

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

Instant coffee packs.

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

Personal snacks.

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

A power strip.

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

Tea and throat drops.

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

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

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

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

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

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

2. Energy for the venue.

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

3. Target audience.

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

4. The message you want to send.

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

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

Invest in a good sound system.

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

Utilize students to help with music.

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

Utilize apps and the internet.

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

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

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

Leading Intentional Meetings

If you’re like me, you find yourself in meetings more often than you’d like. We have all been in meetings that seem like they have no focus or purpose, or that would have been better suited as an email. But I think if we take time to self-reflect we would see that perhaps some of the meetings we have lead or contributed to may also fit that description.

I am not an expert in hosting meetings and making them something that everyone wants to attend, but throughout my time in ministry, and other career fields, I have found ways to make them more intentional, life giving, and purposeful. Today my hope is to share with you a few ways that you could bring life and intentionality to your meetings and hopefully lead meetings that people want to attend.

Make the meeting relational and communal.

One of the best things you can do for your meetings is to have a time of fellowship and community building. We do this by hosting a meal during leader trainings and meetings, but this could look as simple as having light refreshments or a hot chocolate bar during parent meetings. This gives the people that you shepherd time to fellowship together and foster good community. It also allows you to engage and interact with your people. This is a great opportunity to foster a relationship that isn’t just seen as informational but purposeful and relational. This strengthens your ability to care for others and helps you effectively minister holistically to your people.

Incorporate prayer and spiritual formation.

If I am being honest, this wasn’t something that I incorporated early on in ministry, but it is something I have become keenly aware of utilizing in recent years. Prayer and spiritual formation are highly important in our own lives and within the lives of the people we have the privilege of shepherding. But in a hyper-busy world, prayer and spiritual formation can often take a back seat. Rather than lament that reality, we can create intentional opportunities to incorporate these rhythms into our lives and our meetings afford a prime opportunity to do so. When we shape a meeting around prayer and spiritual formation you are telling your people that they matter to you and that you care about them and their relationship with Jesus. This is more of a priority than simply training on the next cultural shift in youth ministry or in giving all the information to parents. Yes, those are good and beneficial topics to cover, but our primary focus should be on the spiritual health of our people. When you begin to incorporate these moments into your meetings you will see a culture shift within the ministry for the better. People will be more intentional, prayer becomes a priority, lives start to change, and growth happens (not just numerical but spiritual and relational growth as well). When we put God on the center stage, we will see great and powerful change come about.

Focus the time of information giving.

I know that when I lead meetings I can often come ready to give a firehose of information. Whether it is updates, reminders, or information about programmatic change, I always feel the pressure of trying to communicate all the information. But what if we simply approached the information piece in soundbites? Instead of simply dropping all the information with all the details, consider hitting the key points from up front but utilize handouts with more information for your people to look through. This may not stem all the questions but it will free up some of the meeting time which you can utilize with other material. Trying to condense the information time gives you the freedom and opportunity to frame your meeting in different ways and to be intentional with your time to care for your people.

Encourage and recognize your community.

This is one of my favorite things to do, especially during meetings with my leaders. I love to encourage them for all they have done and to make sure that they feel honored and encouraged. So often it is easy to take our leaders for granted because they continue to do what they always have done: an amazing job. But being able to intentionally recognize and encourage them publicly is huge and goes much further than a simple “nice job” or “thank you” after youth group. This isn’t reserved for just your leaders; it can be utilized in your student leadership team, parent meetings, or even amongst your staff team. Recognizing and encouraging your community will show them that you see and value them. It will endear your team to your ministry and challenge them to continue to grow and care for the people under their care.

Honor the schedule and be purposeful with it.

This is a huge one. We have all been in meetings that go too long and do not adhere to their schedule. As those meetings go on, we all find ourselves looking at the clock, feeling frustrated, and wondering how to adjust to the change in time. This is a big deal especially for those who have kids or students at home as it could mean a change in their schedules as well or perhaps a longer time for a babysitter which then incurs more financial strain. When you are intentional and purposeful with the time that you have allotted for the meeting, you are telling your people that you care about them and that they matter. This means that you need to think critically through your schedule and focus the timing of the various components. Doing this may feel difficult at first, but it may lend toward tweaking the overall time of the meeting to appropriately walk through all that is needed. Even if you end up making a meeting a little longer, being able to state how long the meeting is will allow your people to plan appropriately. Honoring the set timing also helps your people to see that you keep your word and are trustworthy. This further endears people to your leadership and the ministry.

One last final word of advice: try to keep all meetings without a meal to under one and a half hours, and a meeting with a meal at no more than two hours. This is a way to make sure we honor others’ time and schedules, and ensures that we are intentional with what is communicated and that is clear and concise.

Trip Follow-Up with Students

Following a trip with students, the first thought in our minds is typically not “how can I follow up or debrief my students?” It is usually, “how much stuff do I need to put away until I can head home and sleep in my own bed?”

As we collect ourselves from the last few days and begin to navigate assimilating to our regular work schedule and life, we often focus on the immediate tasks at hand: putting away all of our gear that we took, washing out the water jugs and coolers, returning or attempting to return all the lost and found items, washing and cleaning vehicles, and nursing the sore muscles we didn’t realize we had.

But what about following up and helping our students re-engage with life and culture again? How do we help them not simply have a “camp high” but a truly life changing moment with Jesus that alters everything? Today my desire is not to give you more work, but hopefully give you insight and ways to help your students engage life differently as they apply what they heard and learned from their trip.

Incorporate follow-up with trip training.

One way to build this into what you are doing is by letting students and leaders know that a debrief or follow-up is a part of going on this trip. All of your meetings for a trip should be mandatory and this should be no exception. When you are walking through training and what to expect on the trip, make sure you talk to students about the importance of reengaging with “normal life” when you return home. Our goal on these trips should not be to give students a temporary high but rather help them change their lives for the long-term.

When students are on these trips they will grow in their relationship with Jesus because they are intentionally focusing on Him, serving others, and will be spending extended time in prayer, worship, and Scripture. Helping students understand that these moments don’t need to stop after the trip is over will allow them to better acclimate back to their normal routines. So make sure to highlight that the group will regather at least once when you return to check-in, debrief, and begin crafting plans on how students can continue strongly in their relationship with Jesus.

Utilize available resources.

There are tons of great resources out there that you can use to engage in follow up and post-trip conversations. One of our favorites is a book called Flipping Missions by our friends at LeaderTreks. This book is fantastic for both middle and high school students, and provides helpful guidance on preparing for the trip, devotions for during the trip, and follow-up devotionals for when you return home. Each chapter of the book is short and written intentionally for students, providing deep and meaningful truths coupled with helpful knowledge about what to expect, how to serve, and how to be missionary for Christ.

Another great resource is a book called When Helping Hurts. There are also YouTube videos from Life Church called Helping Without Hurting that can be utilized alongside the book to help make training more impactful. It is helpful to acknowledge that this resource is more suited for older students, but if you take time to discuss the book and material with your team it may be applicable to younger students as well. Taking advantage of resources will ensure that your team is prepared and ready to serve when you head out on your trip. Make sure that whatever resource you choose is suited to your team, and that it will help you ensure the trip is impactful and purposeful.

Leverage your leaders.

Often on trips we will see our students broken up into smaller groups to help the discipleship process take root. When you come back from a trip, encourage your leaders to not let those moments and relationships fall by the wayside. Instead challenge them to continue engaging with and following up with those students, even if they are not students who are in their regular groups. Part of the beauty of trips is that students can connect with different people including leaders, and these moments could be pivotal in the spiritual formation of our students. So challenge your leaders to engage in follow up, set up hangouts, grab coffee, and pray with and for the students they interacted with on the trip.

Engage in large group follow-up.

Many of the ideas above are focused on pre-trip or smaller group engagements (i.e., leaders following up). But there are benefits to bringing your whole group together to engage with each other, remember the trip, and think through how to continue growing as disciples of Jesus. These gatherings can be very unique depending on your context and may be more formal or may be really relaxed. They may also be different depending on the type of trip you’re coming back from (i.e., a weekend trip, a week-long trip, or a mission trip). Here are a few ideas for how to utilize large group gatherings after your trip.

  • Have a meal together. Consider not only bringing your group together to fellowship and rehash the trip, but think about inviting people from the church to join as well. In these moments, you can challenge your students to connect with people in the church and share their experiences from the trip. This will not only allow for intergenerational discipleship, but will also give those who supported your students an opportunity to have direct follow-up from the trip.
  • Choose a follow-up project to get involved in. Coming off of a mission trip, students are often chomping at the bit to continue helping and serving. Think through ways that students can serve and contribute in your community and at church. Gather the group together to actually engage in a service project and challenge your students to step up and consider serving somewhere long-term.
  • Collect stories from students. God works in amazing ways during trips, and we witness transformative moments in the lives of our students. Consider collecting their stories and sharing them with the youth group or the church at large. You can do this in a variety of ways: collect written testimonials and stories, record videos of students to share, or host a panel discussion to talk about what God did in through the students on the trip.
  • Have a post-trip devotional. One of the best things you can do for your students as you go on trips is have a devotional for during and after the trip. If it is possible to tie the two together, that will allow for a stronger connection overall. You can then utilize these devotionals in follow-up conversations at large group gatherings and ask questions of the group from the devotional.

Ask helpful questions.

Regardless of the type of trip or how long the meeting lasts, follow-up is always important. It is important because it helps to connect what students experienced on the trip with what is happening now in their lives. It also helps them think through how they can apply what they learned to their spheres of influence. But what questions should we ask them? Here are handful of questions that will help you and your leaders engage in helpful and meaningful follow up and application with your students.

  • What was your favorite part of the trip?
  • What changed in your relationship with Jesus?
  • What did God teach you?
  • How are you going to live differently as a result of the trip?
  • What do you need to share with others about this trip?
  • What do you hope others will see in you?
  • Why was this trip important?
  • What are you applying from this trip now that you are back to your normal life?
  • How can you serve back home?
  • Who can you share your story with?
  • How can you love and care for others better after this trip?

Helping Students Encounter Easter

Easter is one of the most important holidays to Christianity, and yet so often it can become about superfluous things, like bunnies and eggs and new pastel clothing, even for those of us in the church. It can be easy for our students to connect more with baskets full of treats and honey-baked hams than the reality of what Easter represents.

If you’re looking for ways to help your students connect with the reality of Easter, we have come up with some simple, yet meaningful ways to build an Easter encounter. The most important thing is to make sure the experience is genuine and relatable for your group, so you may want to tweak some of these suggestions. Don’t be afraid to push your students to think deeper about what Jesus did for them, and what that means for the rest of their lives.

We have broken our encounter into five parts, each highlighting a different aspect of the Easter story and featuring a different activity. Depending on the space you have to work with, you can use a different room for each aspect, or denote a shift from one part to another with a change in lighting, colors, imagery, music, or seating. Again, it’s important to think through what will work for your specific group in the space that you have.

1. The Upper Room + Communion.

We begin by focusing on the Upper Room. You can expand this time with a meal, or keep it shorter with just communion. If you have time and want to try something different, consider hosting a small-scale Seder dinner and connecting the symbolism to what Jesus ultimately does for us. Use the meal or communion to help connect to the Last Supper and what Jesus does with his disciples.

The Upper Room is also a space to prepare for what is to come. Encourage the students to quiet down and reflect on what Jesus is about to do for them. Walk through the purpose of communion and how it connects with what is about to happen at the crucifixion.

2. The Crucifixion + Prayer.

While contemplating the cross, encourage the students to contemplate their connection to it. Consider having a time of silent reflection with soft music playing to help set the tone. This is the perfect time to encourage personal reflection and confession as the students think through their own need for the Savior. Incorporate a time of prayer where students are encourage to directly interact with Jesus based on their personal reflections and what he has done for them. The goal is to help students connect their need for a Savior with what Christ Jesus did for them on the cross.

3. The Tomb + Journaling.

The tomb can symbolize a period of waiting, waiting for both unexpected and expected things. We know now what happened after the three days Jesus spent in the tomb, but at the time, there was much uncertainty surrounding what was going to happen. So it is with our futures–we don’t know what God is going to do, especially as middle and high school students. What will God call us to, how will he use our lives?

Encourage students to think through the things they are waiting for and to spend some time journaling about their hopes, fears, expectations, and uncertainties. Challenge them to think about what God may have for them, and what he may be calling them to, in the years to come. Then encourage them to think through how they can serve and follow him now, as they may feel like they are spending their time waiting for whatever comes next. The goal is to help students look holistically at their life and think through ways God is moving, even if they don’t see it, expect it, or feel it.

4. The Resurrection + Celebration.

The resurrection is the culmination of everything we’ve done up to this point–it is the evidence of Jesus’ power and the fulfillment of his promise. It is joyful and jubilant. This is a perfect moment to celebrate what Jesus has done and worship him. This can be done through a time of celebratory music and singing, sharing corporately, and creating art. Encourage students to respond from their hearts and do what feels worshipful for them, but have available activities they can choose from to help give guidance and direction.

You may also want to incorporate an element of “feasting” with cake or sweet treats. You can tie this into experiencing Jesus by connecting his goodness and sweetness with the sense of taste. This can stand in contrast to some of the previous stations that included an element of deprivation, like silence. In the celebration of the resurrection, we encounter joy and excitement throughout our entire being, so the more senses you can incorporate, the more holistic it will feel.

5. The Great Commission + Commitment.

Finish your Easter encounter with the Great Commission. This can have a twofold purpose: an invitation for the students who don’t know Jesus, and a missional calling for those who do. Invite students to make a decision as you conclude and go out from the experience. Will they choose to give their life to Jesus for the first time? Or is there someone in their life with whom they can share his truth? Is God calling them to serve within the church, their school, or community? Is he asking something specific of them?

Challenge students to commit to an action step before they leave and write it down on a card they take with them. Encourage them to take it a step further by sharing their action step with their leader, parents, and anyone else who is a source of accountability in their life. This can help to highlight the truth that while we each have an individual calling and relationship with Christ, we are also part of a community and we need each other. The question becomes, how can we represent and live out the truth of Easter in each and every day for the rest of our lives? Help your students begin to answer this question.

8 Tips for Generating Early Sign-Ups

Have you ever tried to get students to sign up for a trip? Have you ever received that last minute phone call, text, email, or DM asking for a student to be allowed to go? Have you been in that situation where its the week of the trip and only one student has signed up for a trip and you may have to cancel?

I get it. We have all been there. Getting students to sign up early, let alone on time, is extremely difficult. For many years I just assumed this was the norm in student ministry, but it doesn’t have to be. There is a way to make it work. I want to share some tips on how to achieve earlier sign-ups and increase them overall.

I should note that you won’t see changes overnight. In fact it may take a couple of semesters, trips, or years for changes to be seen. But don’t get discouraged. Stick to your values, keep the rules you set, and see what happens. Actual change will take time and if you begin to implement these tips it may just help move that change forward in the right direction.

1. Cast vision early.

This is something I learned early on in my tenure in student ministry. It is important to share the what, the how, and the why. If you are asking for students and families to have buy-in to what you are doing, talk about it as early as possible. Communicate why you are going on this trip. What will be the result? What will happen in students’ lives? How will this trip be paid for? Why should a student go? Why is this important in their spiritual journey? Answering these questions early on will allow for families to better plan and prepare for what you are doing, and it will generate buy-in.

2. Be excited about the trip.

Have you ever started at a new church where you had to take students on a trip to a place you had never been? I have, and I will be honest: it was hard generating excitement about going somewhere I had never been. So instead of talking about just the logistics, I shared about what I was looking forward to. I shared pictures and videos of where we were going. I tried to make travelling overnight sound like an amazing adventure (and it was an adventure). My point is this: if you aren’t excited, or you talk about the trip begrudgingly or with no emotion, why would you expect students to go? Get excited and let your excitement bleed into your students as you prepare to go.

3. Know what you are talking about.

This is a big thing to remember. Make sure the information you are sharing is accurate and clear. I will admit that sometimes I have shared inaccurate information and it has kept students and families from signing up. I have been actively looking to better communicate and share what I know to be correct information. In fact, if I don’t know the answer I let them know I will find out and share it with them as soon as I do. This actually helps me be more intentional with communicating with the host site or camp. I ask better questions and get their vision for our trip and that allows me to share more accurate information with my people.

4. Communicate with parents.

Have you ever felt like parents don’t know what is happening? Or have you ever received the email that claims they knew nothing about your upcoming trip or retreat? The reality is that there will always be communication that is missed, but what we should be looking to do is over-communicate.

Think about it: parents have hundreds of emails coming to them all the time. They are seeing all the stuff you are on social media and probably even more. They are trying to balance school activities, sports, social lives and so much more. Be willing to give grace when appropriate but also seek to communicate ahead of time through multiple outlets, and continue to send out communications. Consider hosting a plenary parents only meeting to share about what is coming up. No, you won’t get every parent on your first go-around, but the number will steadily increase as they see your passion and desire to share. The more parents know, the more your students will know, and the more sign-ups you will get because you are all on the same page.

5. Have an early bird sign-up.

Want to guarantee more sign-ups? Work within your budget to have an early bird deadline. Most camps and retreat centers already have that, which is why we preregister so we can save money. But what if you offered the early bird price that you paid for a certain period, and then the price went up to the actual cost (the cost it would be if you hadn’t preregistered)? Now you are generating a desire for students and parents alike to save money. This almost guarantees sign-ups because no one wants to pay extra if they don’t have to. And you are not simply upping the price for the sake of doing so, but from an ethical and moral standard you are keeping it in line.

We do this for all of our big trips. We figure out the lowest possible cost and offer that as the early bird. Then we adjust the rate going forward in accordance with the up-charge in the conference fee. We offer four different payment times: early bird, regular, late, and last minute. At most we have three to five late sign-ups and maybe one last minute because of the price differential. Not only does this generate sign-ups, it also alleviates a lot of stress. Planning appropriate deadlines affords you the ability to collect registrations in a timely manner.

6. Offer a payment plan.

Let’s be real: for some families, paying for longer trips is taxing financially. We get that. If you are asking a family to drop a thousand dollars right away for a trip, you won’t get many sign-ups. If you present a payment plan instead, and give them a means to an end, you will allow families to participate with less financial burden up front. If you have different sign up times you will need to have a plan for each one, but again, it allows families to see how much they owe and when, which can ease the burden.

7. Don’t allow late sign-ups.

This is a big thing for me. I used to always allow people to sign up late. I would hear their reasons why they hadn’t, I would see the change this trip could bring about in a student’s life, and I understood being busy. But what I didn’t see was that I was cultivating a culture where rules, guidelines, and timing didn’t matter. It added stress and tension to planning a trip and going on it. That student didn’t have buy-in like everyone else. Recently we made the decision to not allow late sign-ups unless extenuating circumstances applied. This is a tough stance to hold and there were parents who pushed back. But we shared our reasoning and heart behind it, and when communicated effectively beforehand, parents will see that the were ample opportunities to sign up earlier.

8. Host a scholarship program. 

Regardless of whether there are payment plans or not, you will always have families who cannot afford to pay for trips. Please consider offering scholarships for those families. It may not be a full ride, but even a little may allow for a student to go who originally couldn’t. This may mean getting creative and reworking your budget to put money aside for scholarships, or hosting a sponsorship event at your church, or even seeing if the church would consider taking a special offering. Any time you can help a student go to a camp, trip, or retreat could be life changing with eternal results. So think about how you can help get students to camp who need the financial help.

Tips for Hosting Special Events

I don’t know about you but during this time of year, Christmas parties seem to be happening in abundance. In fact, we just had our student Christmas party last week and it was a ton of fun! We had a cookie and hot chocolate bar, Christmas games, caroling, prizes and giveaways, teaching, and small groups.

It was an incredibly busy and packed night, but one that was intentionally designed and formatted to fit with our vision and goals. Whenever we plan a night for our youth group we always make sure to shape the night not only around the theme but around our vision and priorities. This allows the special night to be more than just a gimmick, but an intentional evening designed to bring people in and to help them grow.

Today, I would love to share with you a few special nights that we have done and that are easy to prepare for. But before I do that, let me give you a few tips to help your night succeed even before you start.

Keep your vision and mission.

Often on themed or special nights we let certain aspects of our normal program fall by the wayside. I know that I have often cut or trimmed our small group time to allow for the fun aspects to take priority. But in looking at our vision, small groups are a huge component of what we do. Therefore we have shifted our timing for themed nights to still allow for small group time.

Cast the vision for the event.

Make sure your leaders and your students know what you are doing, the purpose for what you are doing, and what you expect. When everyone is on the same page and you have your leaders championing the event along with you, you are setting up the event for success.

Bring in additional volunteers.

One of the things I love to do for events is bring in extra help so my small group leaders can stay with their small group throughout the evening. Often that means reaching out to parents, friends, and other church-goers to help run the event which means extra leg work, but huge rewards because discipleship continues to happen.

Feature a student speaker.

I would highly suggest allowing one of your student leaders to share during your event. Not only does this elevate and empower your students, but it shows that you trust them to lead. This also gives your students more of a reason to invite their friends and allows for the Gospel to be shared in a real and vibrant manner.

Don’t forget the prizes.

A quick word on prizes: use them but don’t think they have to be extravagant or need to break the bank. Prizes generate buy-in and competition but aren’t the focus of the event. We love to give out a pizza or ice cream party as prize, or a 12-pack of soda. At other points we have done giant gummy bears or gift cards. The truth is that the size or value of the prize doesn’t matter. A prize could be a champion belt, a gift card, or a bag of candy. Be creative and have fun with what you give away.

Special Event Ideas:


Photo Scavenger Hunt

This type of event is quick to put together and run, but the tough part is when it comes to verifying the images taken. One easy way to avoid having to follow a hashtag or check multiple social media accounts is to have an adult leader in each group who takes the photos and marks which ones have been completed. That way honesty is kept and teams are held accountable by someone other than you as the primary leader.

I recommend looking on Google or Pinterest for ideas. You will get a variety of poses or challenges by doing this, but I would also suggest thinking about having teams pose with various items, rooms, or people at your church. Think about posing in a nursery, taking a picture at the church coffee bar, having a team “play” worship, or take a photo in the senior pastor’s office. Adding in personal elements specific to your ministry will make this event even more special.

Scavenger Hunt

Most of us have done a scavenger hunt before but if you try to make it specific to your location it will make it a lot of fun. You can have items like find a shepherd’s staff, collect two bulletins from two different Sundays, find a picture of a missionary, or whatever else you can think of. You can also add in a lot of generic options like find a two foot tall stick, collect five ants that are alive, or find and carry two cinder-blocks.

One added suggestion would be to create a score sheet that has different point values for the items that are based upon difficulty. Teams then can add up their scores at the end and you will have a winner.

Tailgate Party

This is an event that allows you to utilize materials you already have or that are easily accessible but in a new and creative way. Take your volleyball, 9 Square, corn hole, kickball bases, footballs, and basketballs outdoors, bring a sound system outside, set up the grill, and have a blast. Simply by utilizing the outdoors, music, materials you have, and food, you have created an event that is fun and inviting. Allow your students to create their own adventure under the banner of your schedule and get ready to have a blast.

Open Gym

Allowing for an open gym night can be an easy win for your program. Consider implementing these type of nights into your regular programming. These type of nights allow for students to be creative, for leaders to participate, and for there to be tons of activity happening in multiple places. You can have basketball and ultimate Frisbee happening at the same time. Students could play dodge-ball and Spikeball in the same room. Simply put all the sports equipment in the gym and allow students to have fun and be creative under the guidance of your adult volunteers.

Minute to Win It

This is a fun and easy one to run. A quick YouTube or Google search for “Minute to Win It games” turns up hundreds of results, and most of them require only a few materials. My suggestion would be to utilize a Minute to Win It graphic, a countdown time, and have multiple games going at the same time. This allows different groups to be engaged throughout the program. We also put some small pieces of candy at each table for the teams to take a piece when they complete the challenge as another fun twist to the evening.