Reflections on the Intentionality of Christ

Have you ever been struck by something in Scripture in a new way? A passage that might have felt old and familiar suddenly seems brand new when read through a different perspective? This happened to me recently as I was reading Luke.

I was working my way through the book and came to the passage describing Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. This is a passage I could probably quote from memory even though I’ve never set out to intentionally memorize it. I often think of it in the context of Christmas, with warm feelings, and memories of illustrated versions of His birth coming to mind. It’s all quaint, cozy, and clean.

But this time through, since it was summer, I separated my stereotypical holiday perspective from the passage and looked at it through a different lens. I tried to focus on the reality of the account, and what that reality, as conveyed by the author, was teaching the reader about Jesus. I’ve been struck by the manner of His arrival on earth before, but this time I was struck by the intentionality of it.

We who are Christians believe God is all-powerful, that He can do anything. And by extension, that means that He could have chosen any method or means of coming to earth. But he chose something unexpected, and honestly, unnecessary. He didn’t have to choose to be born in ancient times, in a filthy barn, to a woman who by all appearances had gotten pregnant by being an adulteress.

In our humanity I think many of us would imagine God arriving at minimum with basic comforts, in a clean hospital or at least a nice bedroom. We would imagine that there would be much attention around His birth, that He would at least be middle class, maybe even wealthy, He is God, after all. He has everything and can do anything, he wouldn’t even have to come as a helpless infant. But we see none of this, in fact we see the exact opposite. And from this reality, I am forced to come to terms with the truth that God chose a humble, difficult, and dirty life for Himself. It was intentional.

This reality calls me to examine His life more closely, to look at nothing as coincidence, and to also realize that I can learn the same things about my life. If Jesus was intentional with where He placed Himself, and how He arrived there, does He not also do the same for me? This view is both a challenge and an encouragement, especially as I look at my life as a servant of Christ and a student leader. It means that it is no coincidence that I was born in this time, that I experienced the things that I have experienced, and that I find certain people in my life.

The intentionality of Christ calls me to look at my life as intentional as well. The reality of intentionality forces me to take a closer look at the world around me and my place within it. Rather than looking toward the next thing, trying to change my circumstances, or wishing I didn’t have to deal with __ (fill in the blank with whatever person, circumstance, or social norm bothers you most), I need to stop and realize there is purpose behind what may seem random.

We have been called to serve God in a time and place that is unique to all of us. And I believe He places us when and where we are to accomplish things He wants to uniquely use us to accomplish. This can feel like a burden, but it can also feel like a beautifully redemptive gift. No one else is exactly like us, and this means that we are crafted specifically by the Creator for the things He has intended us to do.

I think there have been times in my life where I have missed the opportunities God has placed in front of me. I have wasted a lot of time trying to accomplish my own plans and objectives with little care for the people and world around me. I know I have missed open doors through which to step and actively do the work of God. I know I’ve worried more about myself and my needs than others. And while I have regret about those times, I can’t continue to live there. I have to move forward, realizing that guilt only distracts me from what is in front of me now.

I hope the intentionality of Christ empowers you to step into any situation you face with courage and boldness, realizing you are here for a reason. You may not know the reason, it may feel incredibly uncomfortable, and you may want to pursue something else that looks better. If that’s the case, I encourage you to read Luke 2:1-20 and ask God what He wants to teach you from the birth of Jesus. May His story encourage your heart and remind you that His power works within you to accomplish His good purposes.

Motives + Ministry: Asking the Hard Questions

In the realm of ministry, if you’re a leader, you have a following. If you have a following, you have a platform. And if you have a platform, you have power. This can be easily noticed in the era of technology, social media, and constant connection. But if you look back over time, it’s always worked this way. People who are followed, listened to, and emulated always have power.

How we as ministry leaders use the power we possess ultimately comes down to the motives of our hearts. And if we aren’t careful to check our motives, we can easily be swept away in the allure of having a platform, building a following, and achieving our version of success.

None of us is perfect, which is why at times it’s important to ask some difficult questions of ourselves. It’s vital that we check our motives, and realign our desires and priorities with God and his directives. Failure to keep ourselves in check can lead us to a place that might look alluring, but ultimately takes us where we don’t want to go.

Today I want to suggest a few questions to ask yourself, and things to think through as you consider your leadership, your goals and aspirations, and of course, your motives.

Ask: What is my short-term goal, what is my long-term goal, and do they align?

It’s not wrong to set goals for yourself and your life, but I would encourage you to fight to make sure they align with God, his word, and his calling for your life. In whatever you hope to achieve, remember that he is the one who will open doors, provide for you, and lead you to where you should go. Don’t bypass what he has for you or overlook it in pursuit of something you believe to be better. Sometimes the best things he has for us are in the most unlikely places. I encourage you to be present where he has you, and to give your best and your all.

In different seasons of life, you may have different short-term goals. But when you step back and look at your life, what is your over-all, long-term goal? What do you feel God calling you to do with your existence? What do you hope to accomplish with your life? At the end of your days, what would indicate a life well lived? Keep the answer to these questions in mind as you set short-term goals. In the day-to-day it can be easy to be distracted by momentary things, whether fame, financial stability, or experiences. Don’t let short-term goals cloud your vision for your life and calling. Fight to keep the short-term in line with the long-term.

Ask: How am I going about getting to where I want to be?

In a day when it is so easy to build a widespread platform thanks to the connectivity of social networks and the internet, it can almost be an expectation that to be successful in any field you must be an “influencer,” and have an online following. You may have a goal of gaining a certain number of followers on Instagram, or readers on your blog, or subscribers to your YouTube channel. You may feel like this will open doors for you in the future, giving you more notoriety, validity or importance.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing about God, what he’s teaching you, or what you’re doing in ministry online, I think unchecked it can lead to more. A social media platform can easily go from a way to reach people to a way to use people, leveraging them to get what you want. Things can quickly become less about sharing a message and more about you, the messenger. And in this, your focus can shift from God to yourself.

Whatever your goal, and whatever you’re pursing, be wise in how you get there. Don’t lose yourself, or your pursuit of Christ and his calling, in the process. This brings to mind Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:26 (and if you remember Michael Tait’s stint as a solo artist, the song “Empty), “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Don’t let the things of this world woo you away from your true purpose.

Ask: Who am I trying to emulate?

Is there someone you idolize, whose career you’d like to achieve, or whose leadership style you imitate, who you feel is showing you the way you should go? Is there someone you are trying to be? When it comes to ministry, it can be easy to put other ministry leaders on pedestals, wishing we had their qualities, platforms, possessions, or opportunities. We can even try to become them, imitating what they are doing, how they dress, or their speaking style. While it’s not wrong to appreciate other leaders, left unchecked it can lead to a form of worship.

Besides the obvious issue of idolizing and worshiping a person, pursuing someone else’s life and ministry means ignoring your own. And over time you will miss out on becoming the person God has made you and intended you to be. The best and only person whom you should be trying to emulate is Jesus. He will lead you in the best direction you could ever go, to become the best person and ministry leader you could ever be. Don’t give up the best for a life spent imitating other people.

Ask: Do I have love?

This may sound like an odd question to include with the others, but stick with me. Lots of times when Christians read 1 Corinthians 13, it’s at a wedding, or some other celebration of romantic love. But I think its scope is much more broad, applying also to our lives at leaders and ministers of the Gospel. We can achieve a lot, accomplish important things, do good work, and preach amazing sermons, but absent of love, it all means nothing.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Absent of love, our efforts are futile. 1 Corinthians 13 verses 4 and following go on to spell out what real love looks like lived out. It manifests Christ-likeness in our lives, shaping us into not only effective ministers of the Gospel, but people who look like Jesus. So as you’re thinking about where you want to go, and working to get there, are you cultivating love in your life? Are you keeping the “main thing” the main thing?

Asking yourself these questions ins’t intended to make you feel bad, or so that you can punish yourself if you get off track. The idea is to build in course-correction, which may become necessary with the passing of time. There is a reason why we find repetition so often in the Bible, and it’s because we are prone to forget. Let us not forget or grow weary of fighting the good fight, it is absolutely worth it.

5 Ways to Vacation Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Set up social media posts ahead of time.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Turn on out-of-office responses.

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

5. Leave work at home.

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

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

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

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

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

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

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

Pursue Scripture first.

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

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

Seek godly counsel.

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

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

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

Work through it.

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

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

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

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

Helping Students Encounter Easter

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

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

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

1. The Upper Room + Communion.

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

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

2. The Crucifixion + Prayer.

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

3. The Tomb + Journaling.

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

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

4. The Resurrection + Celebration.

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

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

5. The Great Commission + Commitment.

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

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

Bible Studies for Students

You’ve probably had a parent, student, or volunteer stop and ask if you had any Bible studies for students. This is a question we will field often and you may not always have a hard copy handy in your office. What I would like to offer today are some digital options of Bible studies for students (some of which you can purchase hard copies if you’d like) and to share some trusted companies and resources with you. This will provide multiple options for you to choose from and give you helpful resources to equip yourself, your team, and your families.

She Reads Truth

This is a fantastic website that has many options for women. It has free reading plans, a free daily devotional, devotional guides you can purchase, study Bibles, and much more. Their studies are solid and work well for individual studies, small groups, or a mentoring relationship. I would highly recommend using their content and keeping this site book marked.

He Reads Truth

This is the brother website for She Reads Truth. Seeing the need for quality devotionals and resources for men, the creators of She Reads Truth launched this resource. It contains reading plans, Bibles, an app, and many other resources specifically geared toward men. Their resources are highly beneficial and come in a variety of study styles that will allow you to choose a study that is best for the context and student.

LeaderTreks

Our friends at LeaderTreks are constantly putting out quality resources for students, pastors, volunteers, and anyone who is involved with students in any capacity. LeaderTreks has a blog you can pull helpful insight from, D-Now studies, Deep Discipleship materials, and free resources. All of these can be leveraged to your circumstance and student, and will allow you to address specific issues or questions that they may have.

Bible Studies for Life

Bible Studies for Life has a ton of resources for a variety of settings, and their student resources are incredibly helpful. These studies are designed to help students understand and relate to God’s Word and look to practically apply it to their lives. These studies come in a variety of Bible translations, they provide leader guides, and they have middle school options available as well.

99 Thoughts

There are a variety of these books on the market right now. A quick Google search will pull up multiple options, but Group Publishing, CPYU, LeaderTreks have quite a few options to pull from. The purpose of these are to provide short thoughts for daily consumption on a wide range of topics. They have options for middle school, high school, and college-aged students (and other ages as well). These are great options to give as gifts or quick resources to students or to have families or small groups walk through together.

RYM

RYM (Reformed Youth Ministries) has many Bible studies for students that deal with a variety of topics. Most of these are deeper theological studies but they come in an easy to use and understand format. One of the nice things about these studies is you can download them for free after submitting your contact information, or you can purchase books through their website if you’d like a more tangible version.

The Gospel Project

Many of us know The Gospel Project because of their stellar videos, but they have other helpful resources as well. One of these resources includes Christ-centered, chronological Bible studies for students. These are phenomenally put together, offer a deeper look at the story of the Bible, and give practical and thoughtful application for students.

CRU

CRU is a wonderful ministry that has churned out an amazing quantity of resources for people at any level in their walk with Jesus. They have downloadable materials, Bible studies by topic or book of the Bible, Bible studies for groups or individuals, and much more. This is a great resource to have and utilize for your students.

How to Deal with Discouragement

An email critiquing your program or teaching. A parent or group of parents talking about you behind your back. A supervisor criticizing what you do during your review. An event you have prayed over and poured hours into bombs. You get told that due to budget cuts you no longer have a job. You are asked, “when do you think you will grow up and be a real pastor?” A student you love and poured into walks away from their faith.

Discouragement looks different for all of us, but all of us have experienced discouragement. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, discouragement in ministry hurts more than discouragement elsewhere. The reason it hurts more is because it isn’t simply a job; it’s our calling, our passion, a reflection of our faith, and an act of service to our Lord. To experience discouragement in ministry rocks us to our core because ministry is such a part of our identity. In some ways it perhaps could have become an idol in our lives and that crushes us more so (more on that below).

So do we simply acknowledge the discouragement and say to ourselves, “roll with the punches” or “brush it off, and keep pressing on?” I don’t think those mentalities are wrong but they are ultimately not sustainable or helpful because they’re simply dismissive of the root issue or allow for us to attempt to bury our feelings. Instead, we need to proactively respond and think through how we handle our discouragement.

Get a mentor.

You shouldn’t have a mentor just for times you are discouraged or hurt, but having a mentor during those times is essential. A mentor is someone who loves you, knows you, understands your passion and calling, and will also speak truth to you. A good mentor will help you to assess what was said and help you to think about it critically. They can discern if there is truth, help you to grow and be challenged, and also encourage and uplift you during those tough moments. A mentor is someone who is fully for you: they want you to be the best you can be, as God designed you to be. They will give you a place to process, be heard, learn, and grow as they push you to be more like Jesus.

Evaluate what was said.

This can be a tough thing to do because we (like everyone else) come with our own biases. We may think that what we do for our program, students, and leaders is top notch. And it may be, but the idea or critique given to you may also be a valid way to do ministry. As a leader we need to be practicing the arts of discernment and evaluation throughout our lives and ministries. If someone shares something that discourages you or upsets you, lean into it and ask some questions.

  • Why did this upset or discourage me?
  • What did I take offense to?
  • Is there anything helpful I can take from this?
  • What was the intention of what was said or what happened?
  • Do I need to have a follow up conversation?
  • Is there any truth or validity to what was said or what happened?
  • How can I grow through this?
  • What do I need to release to God?

Think about why this discouraged you.

This is similar in some ways to evaluating what was said, but this is more intentionally focused on looking inward at our own hearts. Often we get discouraged because what was said or done hits us in our hearts. This may be because we are so committed to and passionate about our calling, but it can also be because we have held our calling at a higher value than our personal relationship with God. Our calling is not our priority; our priority is our own relationship with God. And our calling is an outworking of our personal relationship with our Savior.

I share both of these reasons because it is important to look at the heart of the matter. If we only assume it is one and not the other, we will not properly assess and discern why we are upset, which then hinders the treatment needed. As you begin to process and think through why you are feeling discouraged, an accurate diagnosis will allow for you to better think through how you respond, move forward, and achieve a healthier understanding and outlook.

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

This is important for all leaders to do periodically, but especially during moments of discouragement. I know there are times I get discouraged after a negative critique of my preaching or a lesson I spent hours cultivating. And I get discouraged even if the amount of encouragement outweighs the one negative comment. Isn’t funny how that happens to us? But this forces us to consider the bigger question of “why.” Why does that happen? Why can one comment or response throw us into such a period of discouragement, doubt, and self-criticism?

The reason is because we are sinful people who truly value, desire, and covet the love and praise of others. This is a hard to truth to swallow, but take a moment and ask yourself this question: do I feel more affirmed, valued, appreciated, and loved when others complement my message or event, or when I know I preached a sermon that honored God and proclaimed the Gospel? Does that answer change if you just got blasted by someone after preaching that sermon that honored God? What if they question your conclusion and tell you that your sermon actually did more harm than good?

We must remember that our job is never to appease others nor is it about receiving the applause and praise of humankind. Our job is to preach the Gospel. To proclaim that Christ came, Christ died, Christ defeated sin and the grave, Christ glorified, and Christ as our salvation. That is our calling. If you can stand up and do that in your messages and in your leadership, then we should be able to stand strong under any critique knowing we have fulfilled our calling. It doesn’t make the critiques and comments any easier to hear, but it assures us of our value and mission. We know we have served the One who is worthy to be served, and that ultimately God will honor our calling and mission to Him regardless of what anyone else says.

Release and forgive.

Often it is easy to hold onto our feelings and the tension they bring. We can hold thoughts in our minds about what was said and who said them. We can allow for the tension, thoughts, and feelings to actually keep us from engaging fully with those individuals or to have thoughts about them that are not Christ-like. If we allow our hurt to develop into more than hurt in our lives it leads to bitterness, frustration, and anger. And these things will cause further pain and division. Let me encourage you to release the pain and hurt, and forgive those who have hurt you whether it was intentional or not. Allowing yourself the freedom to move through the pain and to forgive will actually bring peace and wholeness back into your life. You are not absolving the person nor are you agreeing with what was said. Instead, you are allowing what happened to not be a wedge in your own life, your relationship with them, or your relationship with God. You are seeking to bring about right standing and to honor God.

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

Recently I had one of these moments of discouragement. During COVID it seems like more and more tension is rising to the surface in local churches, and because of that it seems to be rare that church leaders can do what their congregation thinks is right. I had heard of some indirect grumblings about how I am leading and it caused such pain and discouragement. I will be honest: it put me into a funk that day. I was already stressed because I was preaching and had a hundred other things going on, and the week before had been filled with some very difficult moments.

I sat down for a meeting with some of our staff team, and by complete happenstance we went down a rabbit trail that ended with all of us laughing until we were crying. It was one of those moments when I looked at the staff I serve with and felt so blessed to call them my family. As we signed off of Zoom, I realized something: I felt better. I had taken my eyes and thoughts off of the tension at hand and simply took a break with friends and laughed. It brought such relief and joy, and I felt the tension evaporate.

As I reflected on the issue that had arisen, I did it with a fresh perspective and a lighter heart. I realized that the issue wasn’t as great as I first gave it the credit for being. I understood who I was and where my identity came from. I paused to actually take it to God. When we allow for the problem or discouragement to not be our focus, we can be aware of how to better approach that issue. Take some time away from what discouraged you. Refocus. Take time to breathe and do something you enjoy. Spend time with those closest to you who can encourage you and make you laugh. Experience joy and encouragement, then after some time of refreshment, think through what happened and come up with a way to move forward.

Seven Ways to Help Yourself Grow in 2021

As we enter into a new year it’s an appropriate time to intentionally think through ways we can grow and develop. The only way we can continue to pour out and into others is by making sure we are being poured into and growing. I will be honest with you, this wasn’t always something I was focused on, especially early on in ministry, which led to burnout and bitterness toward the church and others. As I continued to serve in ministry, I realized how essential it is to make sure that I was growing and developing personally so I could lead and care for others. Today I want to share some proactive ways to help yourself grow and become a better leader.

1. Spend intentional time with Jesus.

This one seems pretty obvious, but I think ministry leaders can tend to forsake their time with Jesus because it seems we are constantly spending time with Him as we serve. But those times of study and preparation do not always aid our own individual growth. As followers of Jesus we must be intentional with carving out time to personally spend with Him. As we do this, we will be refreshed, challenged, and stretched in our faith which will give us fresh opportunities to lead out and pour into others. Self-care must start with our relationship with Jesus because that will directly impact every part of our lives.

2. Focus on healthy decompression.

Let’s be real: ministry can suck sometimes. It can be weighty, heart-wrenching, hurtful, challenging, and so much more. For many of us, we can carry this weight even after we leave the office because we empathize and sympathize so deeply with our people. But the problem with that is we often do not know how to release and decompress. I want to encourage you to find healthy ways to decompress and allow yourself to breathe and move forward. You are not dismissing the difficult moments or the pain of those you care for, but instead allowing your heart and soul to heal and refresh.

Decompression can look different from person to person, but we each know what we need and what brings us relief. It may be taking a day away from technology, or a weekend retreat, it could be reading a non-ministry related book, it could be fishing, or it could be binge-watching your favorite shows or movies. Whatever decompression looks like for you, make sure you are utilizing it. Decompression allows you to rest and catch your breath, and it gives you opportunities to relax and heal.

3. Take and honor time off.

Time for full transparency: I suck at this one. I am someone who was a workaholic and I can easily fall back into that model. Over time I have gotten better at actually utilizing my days off during the week but I am not great about using my vacation time. But this is something we all need to do. Jesus even carved out time during His earthly ministry to get away from everything, and in the creation account God set aside an entire day for rest. I wrote recently about Sabbath and honoring it, but we need to take this even further and utilize the time we are blessed with to rest, refresh, and refocus. No one is meant to work every hour of every day. So make sure you set healthy parameters for when you are and are not working, honor your days off, and use your vacation time.

4. Be willing to try something new.

Sometimes we get stuck doing the same things because we have always done them. This can be true in our personal lives and in our ministries. So be willing to try something new this year. Step out and push yourself to engage with life in new and creative ways. Perhaps you could pick up a new hobby or skill, maybe it is being willing to explore or to travel, or it could be as simple as building or growing a relationship with someone in your life.

With everything changing due to COVID-19, now is an amazing time to start something new in your ministry. You could implement a leadership time, you could challenge your students to engage with a daily Bible study, you could find new ways to minister to and engage with parents, or you could completely switch up how you do programming. Doing something new will bring about fresh change and a renewed perspective on how and why you are doing things.

5. Find a mentor.

One of the best things for your personal growth and development is to find someone who can speak into your life and ministry as a mentor. A mentor is more than a friend, they are someone who knows you and is willing to speak truth into your life in an effort to challenge, encourage, and stretch you. I highly recommend finding someone who is older and has a heart for or history in ministry to walk with you. This will give you opportunities to share, decompress, grow, and be encouraged throughout your life. A good mentor will not simply encourage you or tell you what you want to hear, but will directly challenge and push you by speaking truth and helping you to be stretched in all aspects of your life.

6. Be wholly present wherever you are.

One of the greatest ways you could grow this year is by being wholly present in every circumstance in which you find yourself. It is easy for many of us, myself included, to allow our minds to wander during conversations or meetings. But if we were to commit to being wholly present we would see some amazing changes. We would see relationships strengthened, a greater ability to contribute, we would remember more, and we would be able to relate better to and walk with those in our lives. Being wholly present allows you to fully appreciate where God has called and placed you, and it also brings value and authenticity to all your relationships.

7. Find something that is not ministry-related to enjoy.

This is similar to decompression in that it could be a way you decompress, but it doesn’t have to be something you use all the time for decompression. Often we surround ourselves with our ministry and its components, which isn’t a bad thing, but that doesn’t afford us the opportunity to rest and enjoy other aspects of our lives, or look at things from another perspective. Ministry is our calling but it isn’t our identity. Christ is. So everything we do, whether ministry or otherwise, should be Christ-centered.

One of the greatest things you could do for your growth is to find something outside of ministry which affords you the opportunity to live for Jesus in situations you may not have before. This could be as simple as being a coach for your child’s sports team, joining a softball league, grabbing wings with your neighbors, hosting a book club, or playing golf with some friends. Prayerfully these will afford you opportunities to be around those who may not know Jesus and also give you insight into how people are doing outside of the scope of traditional ministry.

The Spiritual Upward Spiral

I want to talk to you about a way I think about growth in Jesus; at least, about how spiritual growth has taken place in my life. In describing this, I will use the picture of a spiral.

Picture in your mind a spiral staircase. Imagine that you are above it, looking straight down on it, like you are looking at a blueprint of a building’s floorplan. The staircase will like a wheel with spokes. The “spokes” are the steps, and the “rim” of the “wheel” is the handrail. It also looks like a clock face. The steps are like the hands of the clock and the they point to “12 o’clock,” “1 o’clock,” “2 o’clock,” “3 o’clock,” etc.

As you go up the stairs, you pass “12 o’clock” several times. The first time you pass it you are low on the stairs, the next time you are a little higher, and then you are higher yet as you pass it a final time.

This has been a helpful picture for me in understanding how God has grown me in Jesus. The different “o’clocks” I have encountered on the way up are key truths about God and His plan for my life. Things like: God loves me, God is faithful, I must trust Him, Jesus took all my sin, heaven is real, the Bible is God’s sure Word, etc. As God leads me along in spiritual growth, I find myself coming back to truths I have known for a long, long time. Truths in most cases which are quite simple. But now I am at a different place in my life, “higher up the spiral staircase;” that is, God has grown me since I first heard that He loved me and now I am learning about His love in even deeper and broader ways.

Let’s keep going with the truth that God loves me to illustrate further what I mean: God loves me. Well, who, having been raised in Sunday School from childhood, has not known this from earliest memory? One of the first verses we memorize as children is John 3:16, the beautiful revelation of God’s love for the world. And yet the depth of God’s love is something I need to learn about more and more as I walk with Jesus.

A globally known and respected theologian of the last century was asked later in life, “After all your study, what is the greatest truth you have learned?” His answer? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Those, of course, are lyrics to a simple, well-known children’s Sunday School song.

The Apostle Paul talked about God’s love in this way: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV).

If that is the way it is with God’s love—so deep I need His power to grasp it, then I need to return to it often in my forward and upward progress in Jesus.

Here is my second example: God’s kind and repeated command, “Do not fear.” The fact that God repeats this so many times in the Bible (I have never counted, but someone has said that this word from the Lord is in the Bible 365 times, one for every day of the year) tells me I need to revisit it over and over and over again.

When I first encounter it, my life may be going very smoothly and so I easily, and perhaps glibly, agree, “I don’t need to fear anything!” But then, later at another point in life, I find myself in circumstances that are generating fear in a whole new way, in a deeper, disturbing way. Now I need to learn more from God about how He helps me with my fears.

This brings me to some past sermons. In one, we studied the well-known account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet in John 13. Christ’s call upon His followers to serve is something we need to revisit over and over as we progress in Christ.

The sermon before that was from 2 Peter 1 where Peter says, essentially, I know you already know all this but you need, desperately need, reminding. Remember to add to your faith the seven key qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Remember.

One way this picture of a “spiritual spiral” helps me is by reminding me that there are not an infinite number of truths I need to know and master in order to mature in Jesus. It seems that there are a somewhat limited number of really basic truths which I need to learn. As I come around to those truths again, like on the ascending staircase, I learn them again in a deeper and fuller way, and then even more as I come around to them again.

God leads us to revisit fundamental truths about Him and His will for us. And, as we are at different places in our lives with each visit, we learn of Him in new ways. It is like an ascending spiral, the ascending spiral of spiritual growth. He is leading us upward and onward to our final destination—becoming mature Christians who are given a rich welcome into glory to live with Him forever!

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.