Shaping Your Youth Group Gatherings

When it comes to our student ministry gatherings we should be intentional with how we shape them. Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a week night, or special event, we should critically think through what makes it something students will want to come to and be a part of, and how can our gatherings can intentionally bring students closer to Jesus. Our times of gathering together are highly important as they are opportune moments to pour into our students and help them mature in the discipleship process.

As we look at our gatherings we should be thoughtful not only in thinking through why we are hosting them, but also in how they are structured and designed. Is the goal of the gathering reflected in its scheduling? Do people understand what the purpose is? Is the gathering intentional and focused so that people can clearly see Jesus throughout it? As we wrestle through these questions, they will ultimately allow us to craft gatherings that are focused, intentional, communal, and oriented toward the priorities and hearts of our students.

Make it intentional.

Whenever we host a gathering, it should never be to just have another event, nor should it be a competitive response to something we have seen. Trying to compete with a bigger church or program, trying to reflect what we see influences do, or trying to be the next “big thing” is not what attracts students over the long term. You may see numbers go up for short periods, but it is not a sustainable approach to ministry, nor are we reaching students with the life-changing power of the Gospel. We should focus on crafting gatherings that have a clear intent and are designed to build community, engage with students, and point them to Jesus. You don’t need to be the biggest and best but being intentional and focused on your students will bring more students out over time because they see you truly care about them and their faith.

Have a focus and purpose.

Whenever you gather your students together there should be a focus and purpose that not only shapes how the event looks, but also has a focused outcome and desired results. If it’s about building disciples then shape the gathering with adequate small group time. If it’s about worship and singing praises, shape the time to give prominence to those moments. If it’s simply to be relational and build community then seek to have opportunities that reach people across the spiritual spectrum and make it easier for newcomers to step in. By knowing your focus and purpose, it will allow you to create programs and elements within the program that will best reach your students with the desired outcome.

Bring in elements that build community.

Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a small group gathering, or outreach event, think critically about how you can make the space more inviting, intentional, and community-focused. By doing this you will help students to lower their walls, build trust, and be willing to continue coming, and prayerfully, invite their friends. There are various ways to do this, but even subtle changes can make huge differences in how students engage and respond. Here are a few quick ideas for what to incorporate to help with this idea:

  • Food. By bringing in food you are automatically creating an opportunity to build community because people naturally want to converse when there is food. Food can look different across ministries as well. It could be a café, it could be a full meal, it could be light snacks or breakfast treats, or it could be a hot chocolate bar. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but that we use it to help amply community.
  • Environment. It is important think about our environment and if the environment reflects and encourages community. Do you have tables set up where students can sit together and converse over their food? How many tables do you have set up? If you set up too many tables it may allow for students to spread out and not engage with each other, but if you have the right amount of chairs, you are leveraging the area that students must use for community. Do you have lighting that is welcoming? Do people know where you gather by the signage you have? Do you have comfortable seating? Is your gathering area reflective of your purpose and vision for community? This is all conditional upon space, budget, and ability, but let me encourage you to think about how you can shape and utilize the spaces you have to encourage community and fellowship.
  • Games. This one area can either drastically help your ministry or drastically hurt it. If we seek to do games that only appeal to a small subset of students, we alienate the others who are attending. Often times youth workers default to games they enjoy, something they saw online, or some crazy idea that they came up with while perusing the supply closet. While those ideas and games may all have a time and place, consider utilizing your games to reach a large swath of students. Put out board and card games. Consider utilizing group games like GaGaball or 9 Square that generate community. Or if you are hosting a themed gathering, think through how all your games and activities could reach the widest range of students. Invest in activities that incorporate more than a couple of students and will allow for conversion and engagement for a larger number.
  • Music. Believe it or not, music can actually enhance community and engagement. Think about this: have you ever walked into a space that was silent? There was no music or even background noise, maybe just a few hushed whispers here and there? Did it feel awkward and uncomfortable? The same is true for our youth spaces. Utilize music to bring people together. Consider crafting playlists in Spotify to build playlists that reflect the atmosphere you are desiring. If you want a chill area, build a coffee house playlist. If you want a more energetic atmosphere for activities and games, build a contemporary playlist with upbeat and engaging music.
  • Conversation. Now you may be asking yourself, why do we need to generate conversations? Doesn’t that naturally happen when people gather? Yes, it does, for most people. Some students struggle with social anxiety or may have difficulties knowing how to engage with others. You could think about posting a couple get-to-know-you style questions on your screens. You could put printed out questions designed to help people interact with one another. Or you could put engagement questions together for your small group leaders that are designed to build community within their groups. These options will help your students and leaders engage better with one another overall.

Think through how the gathering reflects your vision and purpose.

As you craft your gatherings it is extremely important to think about how they are presenting your purpose and vision to your students, leaders, and families. We shouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. What we put together should be focused and intentional because that helps us to better minister to our students and it allows us to purposefully communicate our heart and passion to everyone involved. That is not to say you cannot have spontaneous gatherings or that your leaders can’t gather their small group for ice cream. But it should be imperative if spontaneous gatherings happen, that they also reflect the heart and vision of the ministry. That means a trip to get ice cream is more than ice cream, it is a time of care and discipleship. It means a Mario Kart tournament is more than just video games, it is a time of connection and community. When we allow our vision and purpose to be a part of all we do, it shapes our program and our students.

Create a rhythm.

Having a rhythm and flow to your gatherings is highly important as it provides consistency and stability. In a world that is ever-changing, providing stability for families is huge. They can build their schedules accordingly. They can begin to prioritize gatherings and youth events. They can think through what they can and cannot commit to. An established rhythm also allows your leaders to know what to expect, which helps them focus and hone their skills and gifts during gatherings because they are already in the flow of the ministry.

How do you intentionally shape and structure your gatherings to better reach your students?

How to Make Small Group Time Intentional and Purposeful

Small group time is incredibly important for our students to grow and mature as young adults and as disciples of Jesus. We should be looking to incorporate this into our programming and making it a part of our normal rhythms. This will look different depending on the size of your program, the number of leaders and students that you have, and even the layout of where you meet. But this is something that regardless of hurdles, is exceptionally important.

Small groups provide a space for students to process and engage at a personal level, and to think through with a smaller peer group about what it means to live with and reflect Jesus in their spheres of influence. These spaces are truly where transformational discipleship happens, therefore we should critically think through how we are utilizing this time to best impact and challenge our students. Today, our hope is to provide some insight into ways to embrace small group time to best impact your students.

Know your material.

This is one of the best things you can do to make small group time intentional, focused, and beneficial for your students. If you know the material and are prepared, it will allow you to curate discussion and insight that will help your students process and apply what was shared. It also keeps you from scrambling or trying to think through things on the fly. Instead you are able to think about what will best relate to and challenge your individual group because you know them, their desires, their strength and weaknesses, and also where they need to be stretched. These moments will only come about if you prepare for the discussion in small group.

Now it is important to understand that your preparation can only go so far, especially as it depends on your leader getting you the content you need to prepare. Pastors, leaders, and speakers let me say this to you: do your best to equip and provide your leaders with the necessary materials for guiding their small groups. The sooner you get information into their hands, the better prepared they will be to pour into and shepherd your students. But if a leader or speaker does not get you all the information ahead of time, that does not discount you from preparing. Listen to the speaker. Take notes. Think about questions that will engage and challenge your group. Utilize the Bible passages that were shared and use them for further and deeper study with your group.

Know your group and be relational.

Part of having an intentional and purposeful small group time comes from knowing the group and being relational. When you carve out time to get to know your students and for them to know one another, it allows for the conversation to become more intentional and personal as they become comfortable with others in the group. You are helping walls to come down and in the same moment, growing authentic relationships within the group. Through these moments your students will grow to trust you and see you not just as a leader but as someone who cares about them and about their relationship with Jesus. As you relate to them personally, you are making yourself real and authentic to them which will help these times together to be even more intentional and focused.

Balance the time well.

The key to a proactive small group session is to know how to balance the time. Small group time shouldn’t be 90% jokes and 10% discussion. This won’t allow for adequate sharing, relational depth, or spiritual growth, and instead it just becomes another place to hang out and not be serious. Now this is not to say that you can never have a small group time like that. We all know that students sometimes just need a place to laugh and decompress. What I am suggesting is that this isn’t the normal flow and function of the group. Look to balance the time between relational, spiritual, and personal growth. Here’s an example of what I mean, and the timing is malleable to your small group schedule:

  • Relational: Time in the beginning spent sharing highs and lows. Think 10 minutes.
  • Spiritual: Talk about the lesson, what challenged the students, and personal application. This should be the bulk of the time at 20+ minutes.
  • Personal: This is where the rubber meets the road. This can contain prayer requests and a time of prayer for each other, it can incorporate a time of deeper application, or perhaps it is more focused on confession and life change. This would be anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

Talk less.

This may seem counterintuitive to some of us. We may ask, “Aren’t leaders supposed to talk? Isn’t that part of leading the group?” And the answer is yes. Yes, you are supposed to talk, but no, you are not to dominate the conversation or answer every question before the students can speak. While many leaders have tons of wisdom and insight to bring to the table and share with students, we need to remember that people (especially students) need the space to process, think, and talk for themselves.

I have often heard leaders say, “My students don’t talk in small group.” To which I often reply, “Are you giving them the opportunity to do so?” In our small groups we must intentionally allow our students to talk for at least 70% of the time, and allow for our times of talking to be focused on guiding and shepherding them to think through application and their personal walk with Jesus.

This isn’t to say that you set up a timer and only talk for an allotted timeframe, nor is it saying that this balance must always stay the same. There will be times you talk more and times you talk much less. But what we must do is find a balance that allows our students to grow, wrestle with, and apply Biblical truths to their lives. They don’t always need another speaker, but instead need someone who will guide them, ask helpful questions, listen to their answers, and give meaningful insight when needed.

Ask open ended questions.

This goes right back to the previous point about thinking through how we engage and direct conversations. And one the best ways to do this is ask open ended questions instead of “yes or no” style questions. Ask questions that will cause students to think through and process what they heard. Ask a bunch of “why and how” questions. Don’t settle for a simple answer; ask a follow-up question that encourages a student to explain how they arrived at that conclusion. Doing this not only allows for students to continue to talk, but it also challenges them to think through why they believe what they believe and how it relates to their present reality. Another way to ask open ended questions comes in the form of application. Asking students how the topic, truths, or certain points relate to their lives and how they can implement them will give you multiple responses and opportunities to challenge and guide them in their walk with Jesus.

Pray with and for one another.

Spending intentional time praying with and for your small group will make the time with them all the more special and unique. This will not only bring your group together but it will strengthen the bonds you are building. It will help your group to grow and pour into one another and it will help to develop their faith and relationship with Jesus. Prayer is an intimate time and creating an intimate, sacred, and safe space for your students will bring a fresh and personal dynamic to your group.

Follow up and additional connection.

If something important or meaningful is brought up in small group time, make sure to follow up with the student or students. For instance, if a student shares about a struggle they are having, text them during the week to see how they are doing and how things went. If your group commits to a daily devotional time, do a group check in during the week to see if they have been able to keep up with their commitment. By following up and checking in with your students you will allow for relationships to deepen and become more than just a youth group connection. It will be something that unites your group and allows you to be a strong voice for truth in their lives.

It is also helpful to realize that these moments of connection don’t have to be only from things we hear about in small group. Intentionally connecting with your students outside of youth group is important. This doesn’t have to be an every day and every moment type of thing, but something where you are intentionally doing life with your students. Consider taking students shopping with you. Frequent places where your students work to connect with them. Pray for them. Reach out to them to go grab a small group dinner or dessert. These types of connections will enable you to continue pouring into them and helping them grow and mature.

How to Host a Successful Fall Kickoff

Schools are starting back up. Fall sports have begun. Homework is already beginning to take up time during the evening. And for youth groups, there are plans for the fall, what programming will look like, and thoughts about how to start the year off well.

As we begin thinking about the fall, many of us will host some type of celebration or kickoff party to commence the beginning of our fall programming. And with thinking through a kickoff there is probably a deep desire to do something bigger and better than ever before because over the past year we have not been able to do what we considered to be “normal programming.” But in thinking critically through a kickoff for the fall, it is helpful not just to think bigger and better, but to think about what is going to be sustainable, missional, and helpful for directing our students toward deeper discipleship-oriented relationships with Jesus. Today, my hope is to provide you with a few helpful ideas for hosting a successful fall kickoff.

Create a welcoming environment.

This is huge when it comes to programming in general, but even more so at the kickoff to your fall semester. We want students to come to our programs and know they are welcomed and loved. So creating an environment that is shaped for them and where they know that they have a place will generate momentum and continuity. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Have volunteers, adults and students alike, who actually seek out and connect with students who attend.
  • Have a welcome table where students sign in but not merely for attendance. Think about doing a raffle or giveaway to generate momentum.
  • Connect students with peers from their schools and small groups. You’re now fostering an environment of community and relationships that will continue each week.
  • Encourage your leaders to connect with their students and reestablish relationships. Nothing says “you matter and are loved” than someone remembering your name and asking, “how are you doing?”

Have activities and games.

You don’t need to go crazy and have inflatables or a “Fear Factor” style event when you kickoff the semester. These may be fun for a few but I want to encourage you to think about activities and games that will appeal to a broader group of students. A few ideas include: 9 Square, GaGaBall, Minute to Win It games, a small group scavenger hunt competition, yard games, and board games. Utilizing some of these ideas together will generate a ton of excitement but also flexibility for your students to enjoy an event that appeals to a broader group.

Have food.

I firmly believe that food is a must at student events, even weekly gatherings. Food helps to build community, it generates conversation, and brings people together. For a kickoff event consider grilling out, having walking tacos, or even an ice cream social. These moments will create the type of environment that brings people together and helps generate the atmosphere you’re looking for.

Utilize parents and church leaders.

One of my favorite things to do at large student events is to bring parents and church leaders in. This does a multitude of things but a few key aspects include:

  • Showing your students that they matter to the church. Having church leadership present displays a heart for students and shows them that they are the church.
  • It communicates your heart for families. When you bring parents into student ministry it shows that your heart and vision are not only for students but for families and the church.
  • It helps parents and church leaders to see what student ministry is all about. It’s an opportunity to show the necessity and vibrancy of student ministry to those who may not see it all the time.
  • This will allow your volunteers to do what they need to: be with their students. You’re empowering your leaders to lead and at the same time allowing parents and church leadership to witness the discipleship process firsthand. This in and of itself is a huge win.

Connect small groups and leaders.

This is a pivotal time in your ministry as you prepare to kickoff the fall semester because it gives you an opportunity to connect your students with their leaders. This is a prime moment to help your leaders and students begin to reconnect or begin to build relationships that will continue throughout the year and potentially longer. It is an opportunity to begin building and strengthening the discipleship process by intentionally putting your students and leaders together and allowing them to grow as a group.

Cast the vision and heart of the ministry.

Take this time to appropriately talk about student ministries. This is a perfect opportunity for you to share your heart and the vision for the ministry. Doing this helps students, leaders, and parents hear your heart and passion, and also the purpose and direction of the ministry. You are helping to shape, create, and direct the ministry which is ideal for your people. Doing this will create a framework and consistent direction for you and your team.

Tips for Hosting Great Leader Meetings

Our fall program is about to start up and that means we are having our annual team training. We bring together our leaders from all aspects of student ministry and gather for four hours of training together. Now you may have started that last sentence saying “that sounds awesome” but as you got to the end you probably thought something like, “four hours…are you nuts?!”

I know it sounds like a long time but today I want to share with you a few tips about why I think it works. These are tips that we don’t only embody at our fall training but incorporate year round, and I believe it’s the thoughtfulness you will read about in these tips that make our training successful. And as an answer to your follow-up question, no, we don’t do four hours of training every time we gather…we aren’t crazy! It is just that one. So, here are some tips that I think will be helpful for your next training session.

Make it inviting.

How do you make a meeting invitational aside from asking people to come? Think about the setting, ambiance, and attraction. When we host training at any point, we try not to have it be at the church but instead in homes. It makes the meeting more inviting and comfortable because of the setting and location.

Another way to make it inviting is by having food. This may seem like a simple touch but food really does add value to any meeting. It helps people open up, it sets a tone, and it shows that you care. But let me offer some advice about food: don’t do typical youth group fare. Look to up the game because these are your leaders and without them you wouldn’t have a program. Even if you can only afford a few bags of candy, spring for the Hershey Nuggets instead of the store brand. It will communicate value, worth, and appreciation to your people.

A final way to make it invitational is to consider having a time of fellowship, activities, and/or a meal together. Our fall training is hosted by an amazing family who affords us their whole home that includes a pool. So for the end of our training we host a lunch for our leaders and families followed by a time for everyone to swim. It’s a blast! We have kids, students, and adults engaging in fellowship and enjoying time together. If you don’t have a pool, bring yard games or different activities to bring people together.

Make it informational.

As you work through meetings there has to be a purpose to why you are there and what you are talking about. Whether it’s programmatic changes, generational training, or other updates you may have, take time to talk through information that is important to your program. This shows your leaders that there are always growth areas and opportunities for everyone to develop.

Some ways to make this more team-oriented and inviting can include:

  • Have volunteers lead training on topics that they are both passionate and knowledgeable about.
  • Talk about topics that are relevant to students and culture.
  • Make the informational time interactive through question and answer sessions, games, small group discussions, or even by bringing in a guest speaker.

Make it relational and have fun.

I love to build in times for fellowship during training. I make sure to keep the beginning time open to talk, eat food, and fellowship. One of the best things to do during training is to incorporate a meal or food to some degree. If it’s breakfast time get some pastries, do a pancake bar, and make sure to have coffee and tea. If it’s lunch or dinner grill out, have a s’mores bar, or a baked potato bar. Whenever you provide food I would encourage you to think of things outside of what you normally do for students (i.e. walking tacos, pizza, etc.). This shows your leaders that you value and appreciate them.

Another great option for fellowship is to include various fun activities like a fire pit, swimming, yard games, a karaoke contest, team competitions, or even a friendly game of 9 Square. These moments not only allow for your leaders to have fun and release stress but also to connect with one another.

Make it creative.

As you think through training and what it can look like, try to make it creative and not the same training you have done year in and year out. Have different types of team building activities, bring in different people to lead, change up the location and ambiance, or make it a themed training. When you get creative it makes training more inviting and intentional, and it will help make your leaders desire to be a part of what you are doing.

Incorporate prayer and worship.

Whenever we are facilitating a training we always need to remember why we are doing what we are doing. We are simply functioning as disciple-makers and shepherds who have been entrusted to care for His people. As such we should be bathing any training or gathering in prayer and worshiping God because of all He has done and will do. Praying over the year, the ministry, students, and families helps us to shift our focus and remember that this only accomplished through Christ. This allows for us to rejoice in, trust, and acknowledge God’s control and know that the year and everything that happens is all a part of His plan.

Tips for Recruiting Volunteers

Summer trips are wrapping up, the final vacations are commencing, and youth ministries are preparing for the fall. And as we prepare for fall programming many of us are working to finalize and recruit volunteers. Each year we are inevitably faced with the need for new volunteers for a host of reasons. Whether you took over a ministry and volunteers left, your ministry has grown, or volunteers have just stepped back, we all know the pain, panic, and difficulty that comes with seeking out volunteers. In this post I want to provide some ideas to help you grow your team and recruit volunteers who are right for your ministry.

Start early.

This is something we should strive to do. The sooner you start recruiting the less you need to scramble as the next semester or school year approaches. It also gives you the opportunity to truly find people who are committed to the ministry and the vision of the ministry. It affords you greater flexibility and opportunity because you have more time to think critically about who becomes a volunteer and where they will fit.

Ask someone else with connections to help.

This is something I’ve learned to rely on greatly in my last few years of ministry. Some people are fantastic at networking and knowing individuals and their gifting. Our senior pastor’s wife is that person for me. She sends me tons of names of people but includes insight as to why they would be valuable for our ministry. Now it is important in utilizing someone who has this insight to help them know your needs, qualifications for leaders, and the vision of the ministry. This will help in the filtering process and give you more quality candidates to choose from.

Lean into parents.

Parents can make really good volunteers. Some student ministries utilize them and others don’t. It all depends on the program, the vision and purpose, and the relationships between parents and students. Parents bring a ton of insight, wisdom, and a desire to see students grow and because of this, they can be incredibly valuable to the ministry. Many of them are also available during youth group time because they have already carved that time slot out of their schedule.

Now I will say this: it probably isn’t prudent to have a student’s parent be their small group leader. For some families this may work, but for a large majority of them, the student may shut down and not feel comfortable sharing all the time. So if you are going to utilize parents, be thoughtful in where and why you place them where you do. Have conversations with parents and their student and consider what would be the best win for your ministry.

Utilize your current volunteers.

This is a great opportunity for you to lean into your team and allow them to provide insight for the ministry. If you have leaders, ask them who would be a good fit as a new leader. Ask them if they know people who would do well in student ministry. Ask them who they would recommend. They know your heart and vision for the program and they are invested in students. Because of that, they can provide wisdom and insight into who you should be asking.

Another great opportunity would be to ask them to do the recruiting. Having that personal connection means a ton and it allows for your leaders to truly lead outward. They become excited about the program and you are elevating their leadership status and giving them the trust they deserve.

Ask former volunteers.

This is something we should consider each year. Volunteers stop serving for a variety of reasons, and we should remember that they were and still are capable leaders. A helpful place to start when it comes to recruiting volunteers is to start with those who have already served. I have had leaders who faithfully served for four years and then took time off, but promised to be back after a time of refreshment. You may also have former volunteers just waiting in the wings to be asked, and I want to encourage you to do so. Even if they cannot volunteer, you are making personal connections and reestablishing relationships which could lead you to someone else through a connection with your former leader.

Engage in personal conversations.

This is one that will require much of your time but it is arguably the most important and beneficial. It is often through a personal ask that you will be able to recruit more volunteers because it establishes a connection, allows you to share your heart, and it highlights a need. These conversations will take time but they will generate results. Whenever you are afforded the opportunity to meet or talk to someone, I suggest that you take it and leverage those opportunities to discuss what it means to volunteer and why it is worth it. These are moments that will greatly benefit you and your team as you engage with people and they are able to get to know you, your vision, and your passion.

Go old school.

This isn’t something I default to because studies prove that personal conversations and connections generate better results, but we cannot deny that sometimes in order for people to fill a need they need to be made aware that there is one. Some of the ways that we can share about a need include bulletin announcements or on your pre-service slides, announcements from the stage or pulpit, and emailing or cold calling people. This may sound like a lot of work that may not generate a lot of results, but they may generate some, and some is better than none.

A final word of advice. So often I see the need for recruiting new volunteers happen when a new pastor or youth leader takes over. The reason for this is volunteers step back when a pastor or beloved staff member leaves. While I totally understand the why behind this, we as youth workers must seek to leave better. We may not intend our volunteers to leave a program because we do, but they can and will unless we do better.

I believe what we must be doing is looking to build a program that isn’t dependent upon any one person, but instead built on Christ. I tell people often that my desire is to have a program that isn’t about me or my staff, but that students come because they have leaders who love them and disciple them, and a place that is safe for them to hear about Christ. By doing this and saying this our leaders will realize the program isn’t about us but about leading students to Jesus and hopefully will incur a better attitude and longevity in their service, and better set up the incoming leader for success. Look to build a program that isn’t built upon ourselves but on Christ, and speak truth into your people before, during, and after your tenure and help them to continue to stay and move forward with their students.

Trip Follow-Up with Students

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

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

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

Incorporate follow-up with trip training.

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

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

Utilize available resources.

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

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

Leverage your leaders.

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

Engage in large group follow-up.

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

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

Ask helpful questions.

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

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

Crafting a Ministry Vision and Purpose

No matter the ministry or setting we are in, it is important for us all to implement a vision and purpose. A vision and purpose will provide clarity, direction, and longevity to a ministry, as well as provide those within it something to buy into and hold onto. It helps ministries to have a focus which will drive everything they do, and it also helps people jump on board and become a part of what’s happening. A vision gives ministries an identity and focus as they pursue a common purpose.

The question before us is how do we do this, and how do we do it well? Today, my desire is to give you insight and direction on how to begin building a vision for your ministry, and also to help you think critically about what your ministry is and how to help make that the focus going forward.

Know the vision of your church.

As you begin to think through the vision and purpose for your ministry, know your church’s vision. Knowing this will allow for your focus to be in alignment with the church overall and to bring consistency and clarity rather than adding another layer of complexity that could lead to confusion. This will also help you to work better with the church leadership overall and make sure that there is continuity within the church.

Center your vision on the Gospel.

Whenever you are developing a vision and gauging input from multiple sources, it is easy to simply see a plan and a desire and run after them. But we cannot forget the central piece to our vision: the Gospel. Without it, we are simply formulating a plan for another program or service, not a ministry. So as you begin to think through what your vision will look like for your ministry let me encourage you to do two things:

  1. Be in constant prayer about what you are doing. It is easy to simply allow prayer to take a back seat in many areas of our lives. But as we seek to clarify, discern, and ultimately implement a vision for a ministry, we must make sure we are seeking out God’s will and direction which is what truly guides and directs us.
  2. Make the Gospel the reason for and center of what you are doing. Remember that out of the Gospel comes everything we do, say, and think, and as such it should guide our visions, purposes, and programs.

Identify the priorities of the ministry.

This is one aspect that can present unique challenges, especially depending on how many avenues of input you have. Often you will hear people champion priorities they desire or that they believe will make or break a ministry. One of the churches I worked at had multiple leaders who were adamant about going back to a summer camp they had gone to when they were in the program. But the camp’s programming didn’t fit with the overall goal of seeking a discipleship-oriented approach to help our students grow. This didn’t mean it was a bad idea, but it needed to be measured and discerned as to whether it fit with the vision of our ministry.

So as you listen, as you seek to identify the priorities, make sure to hold them against the ultimate goal. If you are looking to curate a discipleship-focused ministry, will all aspects meet that goal? If you are looking to cultivate an environment of invitation, will hosting sword drills bring people in? As you think through these priorities make sure you discern what is best for the goal you are running after.

But, just as a quick aside, remember that what may not seem like a good idea to you now, was once someone’s great idea. So don’t simply dismiss away an approach, idea, or philosophy. Instead approach it with love and grace and be willing to listen and walk through those conversations with others.

Don’t rush or allow the process to slow.

This point sounds like it is in conflict with itself, but the main idea I want to get across is this: the process of establishing and implementing a vision and purpose can and will take time. So do not try to rush through the process. If you try to rush the process people will not feel heard. If you rush the process you will miss key components. If you rush the process you may not allow for God to wholly speak into it and simply frame it based on humanistic desires.

But the opposite is also true: do not intentionally slow down the process. Don’t delay out of fear. Don’t pause because you don’t feel like moving ahead. Don’t slow down because it is hard. This process can be difficult because it will force you to wrestle with key thoughts or patterns that you held that may not align with the vision. Or it could be difficult trying to hear and work with everyone. But that is evidence of the necessity of a consistent vision. Without a vision to unite a team, there will always be disunity. But with a clear and worked through vision you will see people rally to it, and all of the hard work will be worth it.

Bring others in.

It is important to bring your staff team, key volunteers, and key students and families into this process. This can look different depending on your ministry context, and that’s okay. Perhaps you want students involved throughout, or maybe just at key points. Or you could want your staff team to engage with key volunteers to gain insight into the planning process.

Regardless of how you bring others in, make sure to listen and hear what they say. They will bring perspectives and insight you may not have considered, but these perspectives could help in shaping a vision and purpose that is Christ-focused and understanding of your ministry context.

Ask key questions.

By asking key questions of yourself and your team, you will be able to begin to see patterns, themes, and consistent values emerge. They may not all be phrased the exact same way, but you will hear and see them as you engage in these conversations. Not only will asking these questions help you to frame the insight you will receive, it will also allow for individuals to speak into the process and be heard. These questions are not the only ones you should ask, but they are ones that will help you begin to identify and frame out a vision for your program.

  • Why does our program meet?
  • What are we offering to our students?
  • What is unique about our program and what we offer?
  • What do we desire our program to be?
  • Who are we trying to reach through our program?
  • What are the key values of our program?
  • What is different between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • What is the same between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • If you were to write out a vision statement for our program, what would it be?
  • If you were to craft purpose statements for each of the times we meet, what would they be?

What is the vision statement for your ministry? What are some ways that you worked to craft it and hone your ministry’s purpose?

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.

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.