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.

Building Sustainable Summer Programming

Summer is quickly approaching and with guidelines being lessened, it seems more ministries are ramping up for programming. This is such an amazing feeling after what can only be described as a very long and difficult season for all of us. We are excited for the opportunity to gather together. We are eager for nice weather and the ability to fellowship outside. We can sense the newness and anticipation to gather sans masks, to be with those we love and disciple.

But in that same vein there is a propensity to scale our ministries upward quickly and build out massive events and outreaches. Or perhaps you have been told by church leadership that you must have an event per week throughout the entire summer that brings in a certain number of students. These aren’t bad ideas or desires but we need to focus on building a purposeful and intentional ministry that is sustainable. To try and build something bigger and better without the ability to continue it will hinder future growth and the ability to continue to minister to our people. In order to think through how we are structuring and building our summer programming, I want to offer you a few things to consider that will help you in creating a meaningful and purpose-driven ministry.

Make it sustainable.

Whatever you decide to do for the summer, it should be something that you can continue in some manner in the fall or in subsequent summers. You want to have programming that not only can exist in the moment but has longevity as well. It should be something you should be able to reproduce and can continue with in months and years to come. Whatever you plan you need to make sure that you also are able to sustain it personally. My fear is that many youth workers are adding more and more events and gatherings onto their already overflowing plates. Continuing in this style of ministry and work ethic will lead to burnout and bitterness. Instead, I would challenge you to think through if what you are planning is sustainable for your ministry and for yourself. Are these gatherings reproduceable and sustainable within my ministry context? Can I continue with these gatherings or have I reached my capacity? Can I continue to give or am I completely spent? Asking these questions will allow for you to assess how and what you are implementing this summer and if they are sustainable for the long term.

Make it purposeful.

Whenever we think through hosting an event or gathering we should think through the vision and purpose of the event. It shouldn’t be something we have just to have, there should be intentionality and focus to it. Understandably you may be in a position where you have been told to just host events throughout the summer, but think through how you are hosting the event, what it’s purpose is, and how you can use it to empower and grow your ministry as you make disciples. Our ministries should not simply be a place to hang out and have fun, they should be a place where students can come, be loved and challenged, and spurred on in the disciple-making process. So as you plan out your summer, think about how your events and gatherings can embrace your ministry’s focus and vision and utilize these events to further that focus.

Know your demographic.

Now you may already know who attends your church and your ministry, but during the summer there will be times of transition. Some towns lose people during the summer because everyone goes out of town for vacation. Other towns gain people because people come there to vacation. And still others will remain steady in their numbers. When you understand how your community shifts during the summer it affords you a greater opportunity to reach your people. If you know you are a town that draws in tourists, you may want to shift your programming during the summer to be more relational and outreach focused. If you find that your ministry largely retains your students, consider taking advantage of the time together and doing a deep dive on issues they are facing. Or if you have a smaller group and they have expressed a desire for more relational opportunities, host events where community is a highlight. Regardless, you should know who you are trying to reach and how many people to expect. When you know your audience and how many are coming you can build outward and scale your program accordingly.

Less can be more.

Summertime is often when many student ministries ramp up in programming. For some reason we believe that the more opportunities we can host and offer our students, the more likely they are to come. I don’t disagree in hosting events and gatherings, but I don’t think we should try to be all things to all people. If we try to host things all summer long, and offer activity after activity, we will end up feeling burnt out, our leaders will be exhausted, and we will come to see we cannot necessarily compete with everything else summer has to offer. Students will not come because they are working, or at the beach, or at an amusement park, or just relaxing at home.

I would suggest that instead of having a programmatically heavy summer, you approach summer from a less-is-more mentality. Host more focused and intentional gatherings. Lean into your small group leaders and encourage them to gather with their students in intentional and relational ways (getting ice cream together, going to the amusement park, having a movie night, etc.). These types of opportunities will allow you to engage at a deeper level and champion disciple-making because these gatherings are intentionally focused on that vison. Hosting a barbeque will allow for more intentional conversations and for there to be lifelong impact, where a large party style gathering may be fun but will not necessarily have the transformational opportunities we desire.

Take advantage of what you have.

It is so easy to look around and see what everyone else has and is doing. We desire a larger facility, a place with a pool, an outdoor space, all the game equipment, an indoor café, or a space to host worship bands. But if we only look to what we don’t have, we will forget what we do have. God has equipped you and given you all you need in this time and place to reach people for Him. So remember and take advantage of what you have been given.

If you have a smaller setting lean into that. Consider hosting small groups throughout the week and creating space for them to grow in their community and relationship with Jesus. If you have a café, consider opening it up periodically during the summer as a venue for people to come and hang out free of charge. If you have a family with a pool, ask them if they would be up for hosting a pool party. If you only have a field at your church, think about hosting a water wars night or an evening of capture the flag followed by smores. And if you are a larger church, consider sharing resources and inviting other churches in. All of our resources are for the kingdom, so let’s model that in how we share them.

What are your plans for the summer? How are you intentionally investing in your groups during this time?

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.

How to Handle Conflict Well

This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.

Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.

The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.

Pray.

This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.

If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.

Hear, listen, and respond.

Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.

Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.

Process.

Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.

Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.

Know your non-negotiables.

This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.

This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.

Seek forgiveness when needed.

We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).

I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.

Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?

When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.

Follow up.

This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.

Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

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

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

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

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

Pursue Scripture first.

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

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

Seek godly counsel.

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

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

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

Work through it.

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

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

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

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

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.

6 Ways to Connect with Your Audience

Whether you’re speaking to your students, a group of parents, or guest-speaking at a retreat or camp, it is important to think through how to connect with your audience. We have all witnessed someone struggle to connect with their target audience, and we know the necessity of connection as it helps to strengthen the effectiveness of our message. But the question is: how do we connect with our audience?

This is an interesting question because depending on the audience the answers may vary. If you’re communicating with students or children, you may use simpler language and talk about memories when you were their age. If you’re speaking to adults who have a stronger biblical background you may be more apt to include theological terms and doctrinal statements. But age aside, there are some key ways to connect with an audience no matter who you are speaking to. Today, I want to share some of these with you to help you think through how you’re not only connecting but also communicating with those around you.

Know your material.

This is a big thing that I think we often overlook. As ministers of the Gospel we need to take seriously what we are doing and sharing with those in our charge. We shouldn’t treat the messages we share with a lackadaisical attitude that sees us prepping the message right before the start of youth group or a conference. Instead we should desire to study and know our material, and we should give it the proper treatment that is reserved for the life-changing components it contains.

That means we need to afford the proper amount of prep time to what we are sharing, we should internalize our message so if we lose our place in our notes we can still continue and not be stuck, and doing this will afford us freedom as we share should a question or distraction be raised.

Know your audience.

This is one that can be both easy and difficult depending on your setting. If you’re speaking to your students it is probably easier to know them than if you were speaking at a conference or to a newer group. Regardless of who are speaking to, knowing your audience will allow you to establish rapport and credibility, which will then allow them to listen better to what you are sharing.

An easy few ways of knowing your audience include listening, observing, and interacting. Listen to the people around you: to what they say, their stories, their likes and dislikes. These things will help you know what makes them tick which will allow you to then engage with them more on their level and with what they care about. Observing people will also help you understand the social settings and dynamics that are happening within the group, and to discern what they do or don’t enjoy. This then affords you a greater understanding of how to relate to them. Lastly, you should also interact with your audience. Listening and observing is great, but if you don’t get involved with them you may appear standoffish or elitist. When you actually engage and participate with people you will learn much about who they are, which will allow you to connect with them at a deeper level.

Utilize stories.

Stories are an amazing way to connect with your audience. Not only do they help engage one’s imagination but they draw people in and help to further the point of your message. I highly encourage using personal stories because they help you to connect at a deeper level, show authenticity, and highlight that you are a real person who is growing just like your audience. Jesus used stories, often called parables, with great success because storytelling is a wonderful and helpful means of getting your audience to understand and connect the principles you are sharing with real world application and results.

Be authentic.

If you work with students you probably know that they can sniff out when someone isn’t being real or honest with them. They know the moment someone doesn’t really see or care about them, and they know if a speaker truly cares about and wants to be sharing with their group. So when you are speaking or onstage for an event, just be yourself and look to connect with your audience by sharing from your life. Don’t try to mimic another speaker or presenter. Don’t try to tell someone else’s story. Don’t try to be another “influencer.” Instead be who God made you. Communicate your own way and care about the people with whom you are communicating. When they see your heart and love for them, complimented with the truth of Gospel, then you will see lives changed as the Spirit of God takes hold of them.

Use humor.

Humor is a great resource when connecting with people. Some people are masters at this and can seemingly weave it into any talk with little effort, while others need to work hard to bring it into their messages. No matter where you fall in that spectrum, consider using it because humor helps people lower their walls and it allows them to trust you more.

When it comes to humor remember a few things:

  • Always keep it appropriate. If you need to ask, “is this okay to say, do, or show?” the answer is probably no. Always err on the side of caution. You never want humor to be the focus of your message but to point people back to it.
  • Never use other people for humor unless you have their permission. The worst thing you could do is make fun of someone in the audience because they will tune you out and you could potentially turn them off to Jesus.
  • Poke fun at yourself and tell funny stories from your own life. This will help you to be relatable and seen as a normal, everyday person.
  • Your message isn’t a stand-up routine. You are there to point people to Jesus, and humor is simply an asset to help you do just that. Too much humor will come across as disingenuous and people will only come to laugh and not hear the truth of the Gospel.

Utilize visuals.

Visuals can come in all varieties and may change depending on your audience. If it’s a younger audience video clips and funny photos may be a very helpful resource. If it’s an older audience photos, quotes, pictures of resources, and graphs may help in getting your point(s) across. Regardless, we must understand that visuals help us in communicating and therefore help us in connecting with the audience. Visuals bring people in, capture their attention, and help with recall later on.

A few easy visuals include photos (personal photos offer a deeper level of connection if applicable), video clips, PowerPoint or ProPresenter slides, props as they pertain to what you’re sharing, or art. The importance thing in utilizing visuals is that you do not force them and that they are not juvenile. Don’t try to force a prop into an illustration or point because if it doesn’t work, you will detract from your message. And if you try to do something juvenile, people will disconnect and just think about how it wasn’t for them rather than focusing on the point you are attempting to communicate.

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.

7 Ways to Encourage Others

This past month the staff at our church was given a challenge: encourage one another. We drew names from a hat and were told to encourage that person for the whole month, and at the end we would reveal who we were encouraging. It was like Secret Santa but in February.

As I reflected on what we were doing, I thought about the practical application this could have within our personal lives and the ministries we lead and serve. Today, I want to offer some ways to think about encouraging others within your spheres of influence. These people could be your volunteers, staff at your church, your neighbors, your spouse, or whomever you choose. This has been, and continues to be for many, a challenging season, and if we apply some of these to our daily rhythms we will encourage, strengthen, and empower those with whom we do life.

1. Write an encouraging note.

This could be as simple as letting someone know that what they have been doing has been noticed, or it could be more personal. The purpose of this is to actually give the person a tangible message. Handwritten notes or letters contain much more meaning than an email or text, and have a way of encouraging people in powerful ways.

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

One of my favorite things to do with my volunteers is find out what their favorite snack item is and then randomly send them that snack or give it to them at a camp or retreat. It sounds simple, but it holds meaning for that person because it shows intentionality and a relational connection.

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

Sharing a passage of Scripture with someone is hugely encouraging. It can simply be a verse God gave you for that person, a passage to encourage them during whatever season they are going through, or a passage that reminded you of that person. What I would recommend is provide a little rationale with the passage so the person knows why you are leaving it for them.

4. Get students involved.

Encouraging your volunteers, other youth staff, or parents? Don’t forget to get your students involved. They can do something as simple as sending a text or video message to their leaders, or they can create hand-written notes to drop off or mail. Wanting to do a little more? Edit together videos from multiple students and share them with your leaders and staff. Students will remember special moments with their leaders, which can encourage your entire group. Plus fostering a grateful community is always a good idea.

5. Give them a gift card.

This may sound a bit impersonal at first, but let me say this: give someone a gift card to a place they enjoy. For instance, if you have a leader who loves tea, don’t get them a gift card to Starbucks. Consider getting them one to David’s Tea or a local tea shop. If they love online shopping then grab them a gift card to Amazon or their favorite retailer. You could also consider providing a gift card for them to use as a way to take their spouse or significant other out for a date night. The more intentional you are with the destination of the gift card, the more impactful and meaningful it will be. This will mean that you need to know what the person enjoys but as leaders we should be seeking to know our people and find out more about their lives.

6. Take them out.

This is one of my favorite things to do with my volunteers. I love grabbing a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza with my leaders and encouraging them. I always try to pay for them, listen to how they are doing personally and in ministry, and find ways to pray for them. This is a practical and tangible way to care for and encourage your people.

7. Don’t forget important days.

This may seem obvious, but honoring important days is the perfect way to make others feel special and remembered. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or other meaningful milestone, recognizing an important day in the life of others shows that you are paying attention and invested. Set a calendar reminder, or keep a planner where you note these days. Then use one of the suggestions above to celebrate the person, their milestone, and why they are a meaningful part of your life.

5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

Whether we oversee a small youth group or one that attracts hundreds of students, we can all agree that having volunteers is essential. Spiritually mature, veteran youth leaders are appealing, and I think at times we wish all of our leaders were like that. But rarely will that be the case. We will always have young or new youth leaders step in to serve, which is a good thing. What we need to think through is how to help develop our young leaders into mature, veteran leaders. Some may get there of their own accord, but it is our responsibility as ministry leaders and shepherds to help them grow and develop. So what are some ways we can do this?

1. Meet with your volunteers.

Regardless of the size of your program, I would encourage you to know your leaders personally by meeting with them. Part of helping leaders develop and grow means establishing a relationship that will allow them to know you and your heart for the ministry. These don’t have to be super formal or exceptionally long meetings, but they do need to be personal, intentional, and formational. I love meeting with leaders for coffee or lunch, or having them over for dinner and games at my home. During these times we build our relationship, talk about how they are doing, share prayer requests, ask about their experience with the student ministry, and share life together. Sometimes these meetings involve talking about difficult topics or challenging leaders to grow, but often those conversations are easier than most because we have already built relational equity and established trust. Meeting with your leaders will help them grow, know they are loved, and refresh them as they guide students under your leadership.

2. Cast vision well.

Vision-casting is a big part of developing leaders. There are some volunteers who can come, have fun with the students, and lead small groups amazingly well. But if we are not sharing the “why” and the purpose of what we are doing, it’s easy to lose focus. Volunteers will lead differently, the focus of small groups may not be consistent, and messages and guidance will vary. As the shepherd of your leaders, it is imperative to talk about the purpose and vision for what you are doing, which gives everyone the same perspective and target to pursue. Doing this will bring unity and passion to your leaders who will then impart that to the students they are interacting with, and it will provide consistency on all fronts.

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

Leaders volunteer because they love what they are doing, and have something they can bring to the table. It’s important to identify where they are gifted and allow them to have more responsibility. If you have a leader who loves to sing and lead worship, consider asking them to form a youth worship team. If you have a leader who is passionate about speaking on a certain topic, build that into your teaching calendar and allow them to speak. Should a leader have an idea for how to improve the ministry, ask them to share their heart and consider implementing it with them. When you release ownership and empower your leaders with responsibility, you will see the ministry grow and flourish, and you will experience exponential buy-in from them. They will know you trust them with ownership and it releases you from having to do everything or be the only face of the ministry.

4. Recognize and challenge them.

This is something that I think we can always work toward doing better. All of us know that without our volunteers we wouldn’t have an effective ministry, but how often do we tell them that? Do you thank them for coming each week? Do you recognize and affirm them when you see them shepherd students well? Are you sending them a note to thank them for loving students even when it’s hard? We must be leaders who value and love our volunteers, and a tangible way of doing that is by recognizing them for both things we may consider great and small. It shows our leaders that they matter and that we see them and what they are doing.

We need to challenge our leaders as well. There will be times we need to gently remind or encourage our volunteers to lead. There are going to be moments when we need to speak direct truth and challenge them to grow. And we may need to speak with them about mistakes they made and help them right what went wrong.

Both encouraging and challenging your volunteers should be born out of love and a desire for them to succeed and grow as they lead in the ministry. That means these conversations are built upon a loving relationship and they know you truly care about and want the best for them. I would also encourage you to follow up on these conversations as well. Don’t simply look for a one-off chat, instead look to use these moments for ongoing leadership development.

5. Listen to your volunteers.

This is one of the biggest things you can do as the leader of your ministry. The reality is everyone has an opinion and not all of them are helpful. I think if we are honest with ourselves, hearing new ideas or critiques can be hard in the context of ministry. We have poured our hearts, souls, lives, and much more into not just a career but a calling. And because of that we take it personally when someone speaks about doing things differently. But if you have been faithfully seeking to meet with and empower your leaders, they will believe in what you are doing and will offer helpful suggestions and ideas.

A good leader listens to their people because they bring ideas and changes with the same passions and desires they see in you. They aren’t coming to cast your ideas to the side but offering new and creative ways to do things. That means they believe in what you are doing, and they are also doing what you brought them in to do: lead. They see ways to not dismantle the program but help it grow and develop. Listen to their insight, challenge them to think about implementation, give affirmation, look to apply what they said, and allow them to be the ones who lead out with their ideas.