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.

Tips for Pre-Marital and Pre-Engagement Counseling

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

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

Listen well and observe.

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

Speak truth in love.

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

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

Address problem areas.

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

Provide resources.

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

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

Refer out when needed.

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

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

Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.

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

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

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

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

5 Ways to Vacation Well

For many of us summer is a time for vacation. We anxiously anticipate our time away and the ability to decompress. And we long for time with those closest to us that is uninhibited.

But perhaps you’re like me and you aren’t good at vacationing. Sure, you can get away and make it to your destination. You can post all the amazing photos where you’re smiling and the backgrounds are beautiful. But we know deep down we haven’t truly taken time away; we haven’t truly vacationed. We may have left the physical location of our jobs and ministries, but they have not left us.

What I mean is many of us carry the weight of our ministries, volunteers, students, and more, even as we are on vacation. We check our emails when we think no one is looking. We post on our ministry’s social media. We text and engage with students and church issues throughout our trip.

I don’t think this is born out of any warped theology or perspective, but rather out of a desire to wholly engage with our ministry and calling. We don’t want to disengaging because we feel the weight we carry and we acknowledge that we have a passion and obligation to care for our people. But let me ask you this: at what cost?

If you cannot retreat and refresh you will burn out. If you place the whole weight of your ministry upon yourself, you are arguably forgetting that the ministry doesn’t hinge on you but upon Christ. And if we are not wholly present with our families and those we are called to care for first, we are actually doing more harm than good to ourselves and others. Today, I want to present you with a few tips on how to vacation well and actually step back while you refresh. This may be difficult at first, but trust me when I tell you that it is needed and necessary, especially after this past year.

1. Let people know you’re taking time off.

This is hugely important because communicating that you will be away means you should be receiving less communication. We work in a tech savy ministry, and we are always getting inundated with texts, messages, videos, and memes. None of these are inheritenly wrong or bad, but they are part of our job. If we engage with them, we are missing out on our own time to rest and refresh. So communicate to your students, families, co-workers, supervisors, and the church that you will be away.

This isn’t wrong to do, even though it may feel like it. We may feel like not responding is hurting someone or pushing them further from Jesus. And yes, there will be emergencies when you may need to engage, but it is extremely important to remember that you are not people’s savior. We are simply employees of the Savior. We cannot work ourselves into the mentality that we are the only ones who can help people. But rather we should feel comfortable knowing there are others that God has positioned to help. So breathe easier and release.

2. Set up social media posts ahead of time.

I don’t know if your ministry utilizes social media, but we do a ton. We have a whole social media plan in place for each week. Sundays serve as a day of reminders and updates via video; Mondays are our weekly devotional; Wednesdays serve as a reminder of youth group that night or of events during the summer; and Fridays are our day to engage with our audience. Because there is the pressure to post on social media and continue a rhythm, it is important to schedule these posts ahead of time. That way you do not need to worry about hopping on your laptop or phone for “a few minutes” to post. Instead you can schedule them out so you can be wholly present during your vacation.

There are multiple apps that allow you to cross-post on multiple platforms, and I would encourage you to think through which platforms you need to post on. You truly don’t need to post the same content everywhere, nor do you need to utilize every social media tool that is out there (maybe I’ll write more about how to leverage and choose social media at a later time). What we are doing is simply using Facebook and Instagram and scheduling posts through Facebook’s Business Suite. You can post just to Facebook or Instagram, or you can post to both. And you can also schedule stories as well since that is where students seem to engage the most on Instagram.

3. Turn off notifications to your phone or leave electronics at home.

This is one that may leave you feeling a little anxious, but trust me when I say that this is one of the best things you can do. Turning off notifications for email, social media, calls, and whatever else is work-related will give you a feeling of freedom and rest. It will stop you from thinking about work and all the details and allow you to focus on your time away. This will require a bit of work as you will need to turn off notifications for various apps and functions ahead of time, or another way to work around this is to turn off your phone completely. Doing this will actually be a way of releasing and letting go of an object that arguably has a lot of control and power in our lives. Just as a quick aside, turning on Airplane Mode doesn’t stop notifications because if you connect to Wi-Fi they will still come through.

Another way to engage this is by simply leaving your electronics at home. Leave your laptop, phone, tablet, or whatever else is work-related at home so they are not constantly pinging you with notifications. Now if you can’t leave your phone for various reasons, consider what we said about turning off notifications. And if you need a tablet or laptop, consider doing the same thing as with your phone or having a secondary electronic device that doesn’t have all those apps and functions on it.

4. Turn on out-of-office responses.

This is a pretty easy one, but one we sometimes forget to do. Turn on your “out of the office” response for your email, voicemail, and whatever else is used to contact you. Doing this will allow people to understand why you didn’t respond right away and it will take the pressure off of you so you don’t have to shoot out a quick text, call, or email saying why.

5. Leave work at home.

This is a big one, especially for me. I can turn off notifications and such, but I will often make the excuse that the book or blog or article that I am reading isn’t for work. But I know deep down, it is. If you are going to take time away from work, take time away. Bring books and things to do that will help you refresh in mind, body, and soul. Take items that will rejuvenate you and bring life to you and your relationships. So put down your books on how to be a better communicator, leave behind the blogs on how to engage with students, and instead pick up your Bible or take a book that is nourishing to your soul and engage with them during your vacation.

The whole purpose with this is not to say that work is bad or wrong, but to help us fully get away and rest. If we are not healthy and refreshed we cannot lead well. And it isn’t wrong to engage or respond to a text, but we all know it isn’t a simple response. It is deeper than that because we engage fully with our ministry and our people. A simple text means our minds wander. A response to an email can pull at our hearts and thoughts. A phone call that was to be two minutes can turn into an hour. But it isn’t just those moments; it continues because our minds and hearts will focus on those things and not the rest and refreshment we need. So look to escape and refresh this summer…you deserve it!

Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

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

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

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

Listen well.

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

Include parents.

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

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

Follow up.

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

Seek clarity.

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

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

Know your stuff.

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

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

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

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

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 3]

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

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

Genesis 2:4-25

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

Hebrews 13:4

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 13

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

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

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

Matthew 5:27-30

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

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

Song of Solomon 7:6-12

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

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

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 2]

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

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

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

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

Use correct terminology.

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

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

Identify the awkwardness.

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

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

Do not make light of this topic or surrounding ones.

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

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

Don’t be graphic about sex.

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

Focus on the heart, not behavior modification.

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

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

Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

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

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

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

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

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 1]

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

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

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

Communicate what you are doing.

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

Approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth.

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

Be willing to acknowledge the difficulty with this topic.

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

Understand this could be a trigger for certain people

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

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

Talk about the why.

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

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

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

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

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

8 Ideas for Honoring Seniors

As we are moving into graduation season it’s helpful to think about how to honor and celebrate your graduates. Much like 2020, this year may look different in what you can do under various guidelines, but we should still seek to honor our seniors and their achievements. Culture regularly celebrates moments of change or accomplishment, but the church does not always seize these opportunities to pour into people’s lives. I want to encourage you to think through how you could specifically pour into, care for, and honor your seniors as they get ready to step into uncharted waters after graduation.

Today we want to share a few helpful and easy ways to honor your graduates and help them know they are loved and cared for. These tips can serve as a way for us to begin thinking about how we can best care for our seniors within our different ministry contexts.

1. Commission your graduates.

We are sending our students out into a new phase of life, and many of them will be going to secular colleges, universities, and workplaces. Their belief systems will be challenged, they will be pushed to question their faith, and they will have a whole new set of experiences to grapple through. In essence we are sending them out into a mission field, and because of this we should commission them as a church.

Rally your congregation around this mentality and leverage a Sunday morning to intentionally speak truth into the lives of students and pray over them. We take time on Sunday and honor the graduates on stage, and then have our elders and pastors pray over them as the congregation prays along. This is an awesome opportunity to show these students that the church is for them and that they are supported and prayed for.

2. Connect seniors with a college group.

Whether it is one in your church, one near the college they are going to, or both, this is one of the best things you can do for your graduates. Many graduates will fall away from the church if they are not connected to one while at school because they do not have consistent biblical community. Students, like all of us, need to be connected with other believers and to have consistent community where they can be discipled and poured into.

Be willing to challenge your students to seek out churches and groups, but also be willing to help them in this process. Reach out in youth pastor social media groups, use your contacts and networks, and even help with a quick Google search. Another great resource is Every Student Sent. This used to be Campus Ministry Link, but they have recently updated, added many elements, and rebranded. This is a great resource to research churches, campus groups, and more in an easy one-stop place. These things will help your students find solid churches and groups to be a part of, and will help them in continuing in their walk with Jesus.

3. Host a breakfast or luncheon for grads and their families.

This is something we have begun to implement in our youth program over the past few years. On the Sunday we honor our seniors we bring them and their families to a light reception after they are commissioned. We take this time to intentionally pour into them and their parents. We offer some refreshments, speak words of truth, give parents intentional time to speak into their graduate’s life, share helpful resources, give them a gift, and connect them with our college ministry.

The big piece is highlighting intentional community and helping our graduates and their families see that they are of immense value in our church. It is also about creating space for families to intentionally be present with each other and allowing them to speak into their graduate’s life. In many ways these are sacred moments for families and an opportunity for them to grow closer to one another and to Jesus.

4. Acknowledge seniors before their peers.

At our last high school large group gathering, we acknowledge our graduates, pray over them, and usually treat their small group to a dessert or dinner. It is simply a way of acknowledging their achievements before their peers and celebrating our graduates. This shows them they are loved and valued, and that they have an extended family within our program.

5. Pray over them.

This is something we should be very intentional in doing. Whether it is before the church as a whole, in front of your youth group, or at a smaller gathering, we should be praying for our graduates. Pray for their faith, pray for the transitions that are coming, pray for their families, pray for them to do well, and pray that they can be a witness wherever they go. Prayer shows intentionality and the value we place on our graduates. It allows them to know that they are a part of something bigger and that we care about them in deep ways.

6. Get your seniors a gift.

Giving a gift is an awesome way to encourage your graduates and to let them know they are loved and cared for. You could get them a book, a journal, a laundry basket filled with some essentials for college, a branded Yeti, or a Target gift card with a personal letter. Whatever you decide to get them, remember it is more about the intentionality and relationship than the gift. So no matter what you get them include a personal note or card. Speak truth into them and let the gift simply be an extension of the love you have for them.

7. Put together a brochure or slideshow.

I love doing stuff like this. This is an awesome way to highlight your graduates and show them how special they are. Some churches do a slideshow at youth group or during a service, other churches set up individual tables for graduates to showcase pictures and achievements, and others put together a brochure for families. Whatever you do for your graduates, make it about them. Let this be a time of honoring and celebrating them and their achievements.

8. Utilize leaders and small groups.

This is something we have begun doing more and more. We are a small group heavy program and because of that our leaders have an awesome privilege of doing life on life with our students and pouring into them. In fact our students often cite their leaders and small groups as being highly influential in their lives. Because of this we leverage our leaders and small groups and bring them into these moments. We invite leaders to pray for their students, leaders and small groups are given times to celebrate together, and we encourage our leaders to continue reaching out and pouring into their students after graduation.

5 Tips for Fundraising

This past weekend we hosted our annual fundraiser for our student ministry summer trip. But due to the effects of the pandemic, this fundraiser looked nothing like those that came before.

Prior to my tenure at the church the student ministry department would host something called “Dinner and a Show.” It was exactly what it sounds like: a fancy dinner with a full performance by students that took more than three hours to host. We eventually moved away from that fundraiser and began to host a brunch on a Sunday morning to raise funds. In 2019 we hosted our biggest brunch to date, and we raised the highest amount we had ever raised. It was awesome, and we were so excited for the future success of our fundraisers and what that would mean for getting students to camps and retreats.

But then 2020 hit and we cancelled all trips and our fundraising was put on hold. At the beginning of this year we were given the opportunity to go to a local camp over the summer, and we were told we could seek to raise funds. But, there were some conditions: no food, social distancing must be adhered to, masks must be worn, and we would need to radically change what we had done in the past.

As I understood the rationale and purpose behind the guidelines and promised to adhere to them, there were hundreds of questions in my mind about how we would succeed in fundraising. My heart ached as I thought about the negative ways not having our traditional fundraiser would impact students who were in financial need. I questioned whether people would actually give if there was no food or opportunity for them to engage in the ways they had before. But as I prayed and sought out how to host a fundraiser, I began to see fundraising in a new light. Fundraising isn’t just about bringing in needed funds, but it is also an opportunity to engage the whole church body in inter-generational discipleship, to have our students serve, to bring people together for the Gospel, and to help the body of Christ grow and mature.

Today, I want to share with you five things to remember as you seek to have a successful fundraiser. These may seem completely opposite of what we have always thought fundraising to be, but I want to ask you to hear me out. And to consider these tips and think through the heart, rationale, and purpose of fundraising as it pertains to our students and ministries.

1. Fundraising is not the priority.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. The more I searched my heart on seeking to understand the why behind fundraisers, the more I became convinced the purpose of fundraising shouldn’t solely be about obtaining money necessary for the cost of trips. It is bigger than that! These trips that we are raising funds for should be focused on helping our students grow in their relationship with Jesus, and because of that, these fundraisers should be opportunities to help stretch and grow our students. There should be opportunities for students to step up and step out. They should be ready to share the Gospel if needed. They should be focused on leading and being advocates for the kingdom of Heaven.

I was also faced with the reality that there are some within our church who cannot support these trips financially, but they are more than willing to pray consistently for our students. So we focused our attention not on raising funds, but raising support. We shared with our church that we would cherish their support in whatever way they would be willing to give it, whether financial or spiritual, and the church responded in wonderful ways and provided for our students.

2. Allow students to serve in some capacity.

Part of helping students understand the value, purpose, and meaning of a fundraiser and going on trips is giving them the opportunity to have skin in the game. Gen Z loves to take an active role in helping others and they love to actually put action to the words they believe. So allow them to serve in a variety of ways at your fundraiser. This may include you giving additional time to walk through training with your students, but it will pay off in the end as students actually begin to take the lead on serving. We have had students serve as ushers and greeters, students have helped in set up and tear down, they did announcements in front of the church, they shared their stories, they have served food, had conversations with people, and contributed in a variety of other ways. When they do this they understand that there is so much that goes into planning and leading a trip and because of this, they value the time they have on the trip all the more. So allow them to flourish and grow as they serve.

3. Find ways to involve the body of Christ.

This should be a part of not only our fundraisers but our ministries overall. We should seek to incorporate the church as a whole and not operate in a silo. We should seek to build bridges through inter-generational opportunities and witness the body of Christ truly function as a body. Part of getting our students involved in serving is that it allows them to see that they are an intricate part of the church, and part of getting the church involved is allowing students to understand that the church sees them as a needed part of the body. When the body of Christ is brought into the thought and purpose of what is happening within any ministry, they rally to support it and will become a vital part of your team. Seek to bring parents, volunteers, and others into fundraising opportunities in any way that you can, and encourage your students to walk with them and lead outward together.

4. Highlight the purpose, rationale, and effect of trips in the lives of students.

One of my favorite things to do during fundraising is to have students share with the church. Our student ministry actually interviews students on stage during the services and asks them questions like:

  • Why are you going on this trip?
  • How have trips with our program impacted you?
  • How have trips helped your relationship with Jesus grow?
  • Why are trips like this one important for students?
  • What would you say to students who haven’t gone on trips about why they should?

I am always blown away by the responses I have gotten. This year I had a senior say that trips like this allowed him to grow close to Jesus and showed him the importance of pouring into younger students. I had another student who proclaimed that trips like this allowed him to grow closer to his leaders who had discipled him and helped him become a better man and a better Christian. When the church body hears this, it allows them to see the necessity and effectiveness of these trips, and moves them toward giving.

5. Focus on inter-generational community.

This is a piece that I have grown to more deeply understand and appreciate during my time in ministry. We must help our churches to see that students are not the future of our church, but are a current and vital part of the church now. There is already a growing rift between generations and it is only deepening as people refuse to listen, honor, and walk with one another. The church cannot be a place where this is allowed to happen. Instead we must be a beacon of hope and change for our people.

I would encourage you to help your students see the value of working with other generations. Help them to see that while other generations may not reciprocate, that does not mean they cease trying to work together. Instead it should ignite a fire to push your students to step up and lead differently and lead well. If you think about it, we are already engaging in inter-generational discipleship as we have leaders of all different ages leading our students. What we are seeking to do is replicate that within the body of Christ holistically. Seize the opportunity to cast that vision at your fundraisers and allow your students to help create change within the church of which they are an important part.

How to Re-Engage Well

With many states reopening, vaccines being widely distributed, and restrictions being rolled back, the opportunity to re-engage with life and the rhythms we previously enjoyed is becoming more of a reality. But with that reality comes a question: how can we help our people re-engage well? We can easily rush into this new reality, but if we don’t think proactively about what we walked through the past year, we can miss opportunities to engage and care well for others.

Today, I want to provide some ideas to help us step into this new season of life. These could be helpful for you as an individual, or perhaps you could take these and use them to encourage your leaders and families within your ministry. If you are going to provide this to families, I suggest thinking through a few practical examples to help them think creatively about how to implement these in their lives. There are some practical ideas below, but it may be helpful to offer additional ways for families to think critically about how to put these ideas into practice.

Re-engage but don’t forget.

This is a big one for all of us. It will be easy to simply jump back into things, dismiss the time of COVID, and forget all that we walked through, but we cannot. To simply dismiss what happened would not allow there to be growth, change, and opportunities to move forward well. There were many beneficial things that happened during this time that were helpful and allowed us to grow and mature. We shouldn’t go back to being chronically busy. We should spend more time together as a family. We should relish the opportunities to be with those we love. We should find joy in the smaller things. We should celebrate the special moments in our lives in unique ways. We must continue to spend quality time with Jesus.

Establish rhythms.

For many of us, our rhythms were disrupted greatly at the beginning of the pandemic. Our schedules changed, our work locations were radically different, our time with Jesus was altered, and schools embraced remote learning. But over time we established new rhythms and built around our current mode of life. The key thing to remember is that this took time to do because the change was so quick and drastic. But now as life changes once again, it would be beneficial to think proactively about what our rhythms will look like going forward. We have been given the opportunity to look ahead and think about how we can establish rhythms as life changes again. Maybe you’ll keep some you have now, perhaps you’ll add new ones, or maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul. But being proactive will allow you to engage well and not have important things fall by the wayside.

Do a heart check.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we would all admit that the pandemic has affected us in a variety of ways. We have had some extreme highs and some drastically low lows. We have gone through an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual roller-coaster and as we think about re-engaging, it would be helpful to assess how we are doing. We should not dismiss the reality of what we experienced but instead should assess what has happened in our lives and our hearts, and think through how we are actually doing within the midst of all that has happened. We should ask questions like:

  • How am I doing spiritually?
  • How is my attitude toward the church and other believers?
  • How are my emotions?
  • How are my relationships with others?
  • How is my mental health doing?
  • How is my family?
  • How is my relationship with Jesus doing?
  • What is burdening me right now?
  • How have I responded to all the pressures and difficulties that have been happening?
  • What have I rejoiced in?

Asking these questions will help us to see how we are doing, and also help us see our strengths and areas for improvement. Knowing ourselves allows us to be cared for and ministered to, and will also allow us to care for and minister to others. This is all about making sure we are doing well and seeking the help and assistance we need so we can then continue to pour out to those we care for.

Start a faithfulness journal.

It is easy during seasons like we have just experienced to lose sight of God’s faithfulness. But the truth is God never stopped being faithful. Keeping a journal and remembering what God has done will help to put us in the right frame of mind as we re-engage. This may seem a little late as we have already been navigating this for a year, but consider taking time as an individual or family and reflecting back on what God has done this past year. Then consider keeping this journal going forward and see how God continues to show up and care for you.

Be willing to give grace.

As we begin re-engaging we must acknowledge that not everyone will be at the same place. They may not be comfortable stepping out fully, others may have already been engaging without restrictions, some may still be unsure and that’s okay. But as we re-engage we need to be will to give grace and freedom in those moments. Be willing to die to self and seek to care for those around you.

There will be people who had an easier time during this season and people who struggled deeply. And both are okay. We are all unique and have had a different experiences navigating COVID. We need to be willing to listen well and not impose our views and presuppositions upon others.

Be in constant prayer.

This may seem like a no-brainer but we must be proactive in this. We need to be praying for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our leaders. This has been a tough season, and the Enemy has been celebrating as he has seen the church divide over things that should be non-issues. But instead of being frustrated and angry at him or other people, we should be on our knees seeking our Savior and His direction. Let us pray for ourselves and others, and seek to be a tangible representation of Jesus to this world.

Be willing to serve.

As things reopen across the country there are going to be needs that arise. Don’t simply be a consumer, but instead be willing to serve and care for others. It may be within your church, volunteering at local organizations, at the schools in your community, as a coach on your student’s team, or even in helping people do yard work in your neighborhood. Be willing to lead out and care for others as we begin to build a new normal.