Helping Families Win: Family Devotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministering to Students Experiencing Depression

Depression can be defined as feelings of dejection and hopelessness that typically last for more than two weeks. A study released in 2019 showed that the rates of teen suicide and depression drastically increased from 2007 to 2017. According to a nationwide poll by the University of Michigan, one third of parents believe that they have at least one child who suffers from depression.

When we think about the implications that this has on our students and families, it should give us pause to step back and assess how our students are doing.

It is clear that depression is a major issue in our communities as doctors are seeing a rise in cases of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts that are at epidemic proportions. Our students are hurting, and we need to know how to love and care for them during this volatile time. So how do we do this well?

Be a safe person.

Students want to have people in their lives they can trust and go to in difficult times. It is helpful to think about how we reflect this value to our students and show them that they can come to us without judgement or criticism.

When we love our students well and show them that we are there for them, they will be more prone to share what is truly going on. This will then allow for us to administer direct and appropriate care quicker because we know the true issue. Create intentional conversations during everyday activities, and take an interest in your students’ lives as you engage with them. This will show them that you are on their side and truly care about them and what they are dealing with.

Be real.

Students want people in their lives who are authentic and transparent with them. When it comes to shepherding our students, we need to empathize and sympathize with them and let them know it is okay to not be okay. It is okay if they feel hurt or are depressed, but it isn’t okay to stay there and let it grow and fester.

Be honest with your students and let them know that you understand. Don’t look to judge or criticize, but listen and seek to understand. Tell them that they are loved and valued, and that you will walk with them through this. Make sure that your actions mirror your words because students are looking for authenticity and relationships.

Know the signs.

It is important to know what we are dealing with, but how do we identify depression? There are numerous resources online about the symptoms of depression but some key identifiers include the following:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Withdrawing from friendships
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of energy or drive
  • Poor performance in school
  • No longer finding pleasure in things they once enjoyed

No one symptom immediately denotes depression, but if the symptoms are prolonged (present for more than two weeks) and noticeable, it may be time to dig in and ask your student how they are really doing.

Seek to understand.

As you talk to your students, listen for key phrases and watch for reactions and emotional responses. A great way to understand your students would be to think through asking questions like these:

  • What feelings are you experiencing?
  • When do find yourself feeling that way?
  • When did you first start feeling this way?
  • When do these feelings seem strongest?
  • How are your friendships going?
  • Has there been a big change in your life recently?
  • Have you lost anything (i.e. friendships, a family death, a pet, grades, etc.)?
  • How often are you on social media?
  • Are you being bullied or picked on? When does this tend to happen?

These questions will allow you to better understand what is happening. They are not the culminating factor to your conversation, but instead allow you to invest, assess, and better respond to your students and their struggles.

Utilize Scripture.

We cannot minimize the power of Scripture when it comes to our daily lives. I am not advocating that we simply tell our struggling students to read their Bible and pray more, but I would always encourage that we use Scripture as our basis for truth and growth. Some great Bible passages about depression and working through it include: Isaiah 41:10, Psalm 30:5, 11-12, Psalm 46:1, Hebrews 4:15-16, 1 Kings 19:4-6, and Psalm 42:5.

Take advantage of resources.

There are resources at your disposal to help in cases of depression or in trying to identify if depression truly is affecting your students. The first is talk to people in their lives like teachers, small group leaders, and parents. They may be able to provide additional information or resources to you.

You should also know trusted counselors in your community. Begin reaching out to various counselors and counseling offices before the need exists, which will allow you to be better prepared and equipped when needed. In building these relationships, you will find others who share your values and/or beliefs and can be sources of professional help for your students.

Make sure to build your own resources and knowledge as well. Utilize online resources, books, medical journals, and ministry tools to help you have a more comprehensive understanding of depression. In doing this you are not only increasing your knowledge but also equipping yourself to be a better care giver for you students.

It is also important to encourage utilizing modern medicine. It is never a bad thing to seek out help and treatment, and for some cases, this is highly encouraged. They are able to diagnose different causes and symptoms we may not see or know about, and can therefore better treat them and help our students live better.

Depression is hard. It is a difficult road for anyone struggling with it, but we have the privilege of standing in the gap for our students. We get to love them, care for them, and point them to Jesus in all things. My prayer is that these thoughts help you to better step into your student’s life and walk with them through the difficult moments.

What resources have you used to help your students who are battling depression?

Students and Identity: Helpful Tips to Begin the Conversation

I am an athlete. I’m in orchestra. I am a straight-A student. I am the middle child. I’m gay. I am a hard worker. I am kind. I’m straight. I live in the nice part of town. I have 1,598 Instagram followers.

These are just a few of the phrases that students use to identify who they are. They can range from physical characteristics, to gender and sexuality, to academic performance, to social media influence, and beyond. Students–and arguably our entire society–are basing their identity in things, characteristics, and formulas that are ever changing and do not actually define who they are.

As ministry leaders we have an obligation to help shape, prepare, and guide our students in a biblical worldview and understanding of identity. If you find yourself asking when should we start, or is this child old enough, the answers are “now” and “yes.” Our students are being presented with radical identity issues even before kindergarten and we must train them from the youngest of ages on who they are in Christ so it can shape their worldview and allow for them to reach an ever changing culture for Jesus.

But the questions are what do we do and how do we do it? I want to provide a few quick notes, and then address these questions below. These notes and points can easily be reproduced to send to parents to help them have these conversations with their students. With families being at home more now then ever before, the opportunity is perfect for families to have these transformative conversations.

A few of quick notes:

  1. Know this isn’t a one-off conversation. Don’t think this can be relegated to a single talk with students at youth group or over text. This is an ongoing conversation.
  2. Understand that older students can still have these conversations. It is better to start late than not at all.
  3. Be authentic and honest with your students, and be willing to listen. We must understand that we are to be the voice of truth, peace, and calm in their lives as we represent Jesus. Listen to their push-back and questions, don’t respond with “Because I said so,” point them to the truth, and affirm them for wanting to make their faith their own.

So what do we do? How do we actually engage with this conversation?

Present and represent the biblical model of identity to our families.

We must start by understanding that we are broken and sinful people. Look back at the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, and look at how humankind messed up, lied to God, tried to get out of the situation, and God offered forgiveness. In doing this, it sets the tone for our foundational relationship with Jesus. In Genesis 3, God set forgiveness, grace, and redemption in motion to help us better understand the need for a Savior and a relationship with Him. This is a great starting point to highlight where our identity lies.

Show students that their identity is rooted in Christ and not in any other identifying characteristic or trait the world gives to us.

This is not an attempt to alienate ourselves from the world, rather it allows for there to be freedom for us to live as new creations identified by Christ and Christ alone. 1 Peter 2:9 describes who we are in Christ and it has nothing to do with academic performance, athletic prowess, social status, the amount of social media followers we have, or the beauty standards of society. Instead, it radically alters how we view ourselves.

This passage, and many others, allow for you to speak truth into your students and point them toward the understanding that all the burdens society places on them are not their’s to carry. Instead, when they find their identity in Christ it brings wholeness, freedom, and peace.  

We do this by engaging in loving and grace-filled conversations, by pointing our students to truth, by continuing to invest in their lives, and by modeling Jesus to them.

This isn’t a foolproof model. There isn’t one. There will be hard conversations, tears shed, and hurt feelings. But in all things we model Christ, and just as God asked hard questions, pointed out truth, forgave and restored in Genesis 3, that is our model.              

Below are some helpful resources for you to utilize in your ministry. You could share these with your leaders, email them to families, use them to host a Zoom conversation with parents, or simply have them as resource to call on when needed.

How have you talked about identity with your students? What has worked for you?

Helping Seniors Spiritually Prepare for College

For many families this time of year is filled with anticipation and stress. Anticipation because summer is coming and that means planning for trips, no school, camps and clubs, relaxation, and family time. Stress because it means planning. But planning of a different nature for some families.

For families of seniors this time of year can be especially hard because they are dealing with sending out one of their children to college, or to begin the next step in their lives after high school. They are releasing their student into a whole new phase of life, and with this can come many unknowns. Will they continue in their faith? Will they make wise choices? Will they wake up on time? Will they eat more than Ramen and Tasty Cakes?

As we think through this upcoming stage in the lives of graduates, I want to offer some ways you can help parents and graduates prepare spiritually for college. This list is intended to help foster and develop conversations that are ongoing.

Encourage parents to spend time checking in on their student’s spiritual health. Parents can ask them what they have been reading in God’s Word, what they have been learning from youth group or Sunday services. They can also ask how they can be praying for their student. And they can spend time walking through God’s Word with them.

Talk about the importance of finding a church, not from a legalistic approach but in a manner to help your students and families understand the benefits of a church home and the community it provides. Talk about important factors to consider like doctrinal beliefs, and what they are looking for in a church. Understand that their views may differ on minor issues like worship style or preaching style, but ultimately make sure it is a doctrinally sound church.

Encourage families to talk through expectations for how their relationship will be with their student moving forward. Their student will be an adult who is living on their own, and they will be responsible for many of their decisions. This changes some relationship dynamics, but doesn’t mean they stop being their parents. Parents can allow for their child to stretch and grow, but can also intentionally connect and follow up with them. Parents can check on their spiritual health, ask where they are going to church, ask how they can pray for them.

Families can find out what churches are nearby and which Christian groups operate on campus. Campus Ministry Link is an amazing resource that allows families to check what college ministries operate on the campus students are considering or attending. It is easy and free to set up an account, and then search for any college. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it is a great starting point.

Help families get their student connected with the college ministry at your current church. This will be a community that offers safety and support for students, and allows for retention of friendships and community within their home church.

Some great resources for parents and their student to walk through leading up to college are:

How to Help Students Dealing with Anxiety

Students today are struggling with more than ever before. The pressures of academic success, making it into college, participating in extracurricular activities, holding down a job, shifting political climates, threats of violence, struggling with their identity, and trying to live for Jesus in a world that is dynamically opposed to Him are just a few of the pressures our students are facing. And that is all before COVID-19 began to cause even more undue anxiety and fear in people’s lives.

Perhaps as you read that relatively short list, you began to feel overwhelmed or exhausted yourself. That is just a taste of what our students are facing, and what we are seeing as a result of all these pressures is an increase in anxiety and fear. Having moments of occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, but chronic and consistent anxiety is on the rise, and students are bearing the brunt of this.

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. The issue we must understand is that this definition is meant to highlight occasional moments of anxiety, and these symptoms for many students are prolonged and debilitating. The National Institute for Mental Health provides many helpful symptoms and identifying traits for those who may be struggling with prolonged anxiety stemming from a variety of disorders. Knowing the signs and symptoms will allow for us to better prepare to speak into the lives of our students and care for them in all circumstances.

Understanding that anxiety exists and is a part our students’ lives is the first step, but simply identifying a problem or issue is not enough. We must proactively engage and dialogue about these issues and look to help our students move through them.

So what can we do? I want to provide you with a few helpful tips to actively engage with your students and help them to live in the freedom the Gospel provides in a corrupt and broken world.

Engage in conversation.

I know at first glance this may seem simplistic because of course we communicate with one another. But students today don’t just want to communicate, they want to be heard and supported. Take time to actively engage with your students by asking questions and listening. When students respond, don’t simply look to generate a result or solution, but instead hear what they are saying, look to the heart issue, and walk with them. Open ended questions, like the ones listed below, are great at generating dialogue and insight.

  • What was the best part of your day?
  • What was difficult for you today?
  • How did you support your friends today?
  • How did you feel loved today?
  • When did you feel the most anxious today?
  • Share with me one high point and one low point from your day.
  • How did you encourage someone today?

Encourage families to create margin.

We are busy people. Life is always going, we are always doing something. It is essential for families to create space to just be and engage in life together. Instead of doing more things together, it is helpful to allow for there to be a time and place to just breathe. Whether it is an unplugged night together playing games, a family dinner, or spending time together after church. Creating margin and a relaxed place will allow for openness and easier communication.

Pray for and with your students.

When you are engaging in conversation with your students you will intrinsically pick up on ways to be praying for them. Students don’t always offer up requests of the heart, but in hearing them and walking with them you will find new ways to pray for them. This is also an awesome opportunity to model discipleship and soul care as you pray with them. Pray for them by name, lift up their requests, and follow up with them on what you prayer for.

Focus on the Gospel and speak truth.

Our world is broken and corrupt. Pain and fear run rampant. Our day to day is unknown. But we don’t serve this world and ultimately it has no power over us. I would encourage you that if and when your students come to you with fear or anxieties, speak openly about where our hope comes from, and how because of it we can live without fear. I would also say do not simply wait for your students to come to you to talk about this, but instead begin the conversations earlier. The sooner we practice and teach on this, the more beneficial it will be for our students. Here are some helpful Scripture passages to share with your students:

Be willing to bring others in.

There will be times when it is necessary to seek assistance in helping our students. When we may not have the answers, or do not know how to help, it is good to reach out for assistance. Having resources and contacts outside of the church is essential. Build a network of counselors, crisis intervention specialists, and emergency personnel you can reach out to in times of need. This is not implying you are ill-equipped, but instead recognizing that the strengths and skills of others will help you best care for your students.

Caring for High School and College Seniors During COVID-19

While we are all attempting to navigate this new phase of life in which we find ourselves, for high school and college seniors it is especially difficult. All students are missing out on the same things, but for seniors, many rites of passage and coming-of-age events have been torn from their grasp.

Seniors are dealing with proms being cancelled, musicals being postponed, graduations being suspended or moved online, not seeing their friends, and missing out on all the things we took for granted just over a month ago. NBC shared an article that highlights how seniors are feeling and attempting to navigate this period of loss. They feel they are losing their friends, their education, and part of their identity as they cannot engage in the normal social protocols that surround senior year.

Our seniors are hurting and grieving as they experience loss at an entirely new level. During this time we can dial in and look to love, care for, and encourage our seniors. But how do we go about doing that? I want to share with you five ways that we can practically engage our seniors while we are home together. These ideas can be implemented through your ministry or passed along to parents to implement with their senior.

1. Pray for them.

This is huge and cannot be overstated. Praying for our students as a whole is essential, but praying for our seniors who are struggling in unique ways is extremely important. Seniors are walking through loss, questioning why things happen, asking if anyone cares, and wondering if God is in control. To be able to pray for our seniors is a privilege and allows us to go before God on their behalf. Pray for their hurts and loss, pray for them to be encouraged, pray for their identity, and pray for their future. May this time lead them into even deeper relationships with Jesus that will shape their lives going forward.

2. Allow them be heard and grieve.

There is a huge sense of loss right now for seniors and they are grieving. They are looking for an outlet for their emotions and feelings, but sometimes bottle them up because they don’t know how their response will be received. Be willing to let them share without judgement. Let their pain, anger, frustration, and sadness be vocalized. Here are a few ways to help students grieve:

  • Give them a safe space to share their emotions at their pace.
  • Listen carefully and respond appropriately – you are not meant to be the fixer but instead a supporter during this time.
  • Don’t hold too tightly to responses that are out of character.
  • Don’t minimize their feelings.
  • Love and champion them during this time.

3. Encourage connectivity.

This may seem a bit odd at first. How do we do this in a world of social distancing? But what we must remember is students are not just grieving loss of graduation and prom, but friendships and community as well. It is important that we help our students connect with their friends during this time, and we must understand that community will look different.

Most, if not all, of community is taking place digitally as a result of Covid-19. Encourage your senior to connect with friends through calls, FaceTime, group chats, and whatever other forums they use. Another huge aspect would be to make sure they are connecting with their youth group leaders and small groups. Youth leaders can set up various ways to communicate and even short conversations help a student to know they are loved and valued.

4. Pour into their lives.

Isolation is a big deal for all of us, but especially for seniors. They need people encouraging and loving them. Encourage parents especially to make the most of this time to grow closer to their seniors and be present with them. Parents can focus on helping them to grow as an adult, teach them practical skill sets, spend time hanging out together, and help them grow spiritually. We have been given an opportunity to engage with our students in new ways; let’s make the most of the time we have. Two questions to give to parents to help them think through how to do this are:

  • What would I want to share with my senior before they leave for college?
  • What is something that if my senior were in college now, I would have wanted to share with them before they left?

5. Celebrate milestones.

Just because things may have gotten cancelled or postponed, doesn’t mean that seniors cannot be celebrated or make memories. What if you took the moments they were going to have and made them happen in a creative and unique way? It will not be the same, but it will show your senior that they are not forgotten and that they are loved deeply. Here are a few ideas that you and parents could implement or use as a creative jump-start:

  • If commencement gets cancelled, consider hosting an online one for your senior and their friends. Connect with other families and decorate your homes for the commencement. Give each senior an opportunity to share from the “podium” and allow for a parent or two to share advice. Then call each name and have the student receive their diploma from their families. Another added sentimental touch could be having each family member write letters to their senior.
  • If prom gets cancelled consider hosting a mobile prom. Have your senior and their friend group all get ready for prom in what they would have worn. Girls could even get ready together over virtual platforms. Then have everyone get in decorated vehicles and drive around the neighborhood together playing some of their favorite songs. A cool way to have everyone listen to the same song is create a Spotify playlist and start it at the same time in each car. See if you can get your neighbors to come out and cheer for them as they go by. Consider having flowers for all the girls at the end of the parade and boutonnieres for the guys, and have them paired with cards from family and friends.  
  • Have a card shower for your seniors. Put out a call to all your friends, family members, church family, and neighbors asking them to write cards of encouragement to your senior. These can have fun memories, encouraging Scriptures, tips for the future, or whatever else you think will brighten their day. Give a deadline for the cards, and then host a graduation celebration for your senior where there is cake, balloons, gifts, and the cards.

How have you been caring for your seniors?