Help! My Students Don’t Like Me

“How do you make students like you?”

“I am a new youth pastor and I am not connecting with my kids…what am I doing wrong?”

“I have been in youth ministry for years, but I can’t seem to find common ground with my teens in my new position.”

These are just a few quotes I have heard over the past couple of weeks from youth pastors who are struggling to connect with their students.

The real question before us is this: how can I connect with, relate to, and push my students to the Gospel? Throughout various ministries, and lots of trial and error, I have seen many ways work and lots of ways fail. I want to share a few ways to help you connect with your students regardless of where you are and how long you have been there.

Don’t put your worth in students liking you.

If you find your success, identity, and validity in students liking you, then you went into the wrong field with the wrong intentions. You aren’t here to be liked–don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge plus–you are here to disciple students and point them to Jesus. Don’t go looking to be liked but go seeking to show them Jesus and love them the way He does.

Don’t expect them to come to you.

Go to where they are. I think sometimes we believe that if we keep office hours, have an “open door policy,” and invite them over then they will come. That isn’t the case. Students in fact have been told to not go hang out with strange people. If you are in a new position, you are a strange person. They don’t know you yet. They don’t know your passions and heart. So go to them. Go support them at their games and activities. Get involved in the community. Bring donuts to their school in the morning.

Know your students.

This seems like an easy one but depending on the size of your program (and if your memory, like mine, isn’t great) you may not be able to know every student. But try to get to know the ones you can and remember them. There is so much power in being called by your name instead of “hey you” or “buddy” or “dude.” Remember their names, but also seek to know more about them. What school do they go to? What activities are they engaged in? Who is in their friend group? Where’s their favorite place to go hang out? What’s the best coffee shop? What’s their favorite thing about youth group? When you know these things and bring them up in conversations you are showing intentionality and a desire to be a part of their lives.

Be real.

I cannot stress this enough. All you have to do is look at all the memes out there about youth pastors being one way around students and another in front of church members or parents to know that the common perception of youth pastors is they aren’t authentic. Maybe it is just a meme and I am trying to be too insightful, but I think the underlying truth is there: be authentic.

Students can tell when you aren’t being genuine or you’re trying to “just relate” but don’t truly care. They have plenty of people who pretend to care or invest in their lives, they don’t need another one. Be yourself! Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. If you are dorky, own it. If you are an athlete, play basketball with them. If you are quiet, don’t try to be an extrovert. And don’t pretend to know someone when you don’t. Love them as Jesus does and show them who you are.

Have fun.

Don’t be a stick in the mud. Sometimes engaging with students means having fun with them and with what they are doing. Think about it: what adult other than a youth worker do you see playing Gagaball or challenging students to an eating competition? I’ll wait while you come up with names… But seriously, have fun with your students. If they like board games, play with them. If they are into video games, brush up on your gaming skills. You don’t have to crush it or them, and when they beat you, laugh about it.

I love playing 9 Square with my students. Some of them are super athletic and can dominate the game. I can go toe-to-toe with them, but I often choose not to and allow myself to get spiked on. Why? Not because I like losing, but I love to laugh at it and also I get to connect with the students who did get spiked on. Have fun and let your hair down.

Tell personal stories.

Elise wrote an awesome post about the power of a story and she couldn’t be more correct. Stories convey truth and emotion, and they connect with people in a very real way. I love telling stories when I teach and they are almost always personal. I do this for two reasons: people see I am real and just like them, and it allows for my students to know me on a deeper level. My students know about my childhood, college years, my day-to-day activities, and all the times I messed up. In fact, I have students come up and say “remember when you did…” But the funny thing is they weren’t there for that moment, but they were there for my story. They connect with you as you allow them into your space.

Be consistent.

Don’t give up. The reality is all of this takes time and effort, and there will be moments you want to check out or walk away. Don’t! Stay invested. Keep showing up. Go to the plays and sports and coffee shops. When no one comes on a youth group night still show up. Students see you. They see your heart. Be someone who is there for and with them. Be the person they need and the person God called you to be. When you say you will be someone where, be there. When you say there is youth group, show up and be excited. Be consistent and watch what God does.

 

How to Value + Incorporate Story Telling in Student Ministry

Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s true. Historically our world has relied on stories to tell us where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how to live in the here-and-now. Christianity especially is grounded on a book full of stories about God and His people.

Story telling is nothing new, in the world or in student ministry. But at times we may forget just how powerful and important the telling of true stories can be. For followers of Jesus, they can be a compelling marker for the ways in which our lives have been changed and can be changed by the Gospel.

Valuing Story Telling

One of the best ways to truly value the telling of stories within a church context is also one of the most simple: keep them true. Whether it’s a quirky illustration or a heartfelt recounting, make sure it’s a true story. Nothing turns listeners off more than realizing a great story is fake. Conversely, nothing connects a listener to a speaker more than an honest retelling of their life experiences.

True stories are especially important when it comes to connecting “real life” to our faith. For many students, faith can feel like an abstract concept, resulting in a separation of their faith journey from their everyday life. The telling of true, personal stories can model a bringing together of our everyday lives and our faith, showing how the two are woven together at all times. True stories from our lives connect the abstract to reality.

True stories also help to illustrate the life change that the Gospel brings about, showing that Jesus Christ isn’t just a historical figure but a living being who interacts with us now. Stories can demonstrate the power and applicability of the Gospel to the struggles our students may be facing. They can move a message from a broad theme of “the Gospel can change your life” to a specific example of “how the Gospel changed my life.”

In a way, the valuing of true, personal story telling is also a way for us to value the Gospel. If the truth of Jesus Christ has changed your life, you will have stories to back it up. And even more than that, you will want to share these stories so that others may know about the Jesus you have encountered.

Incorporating Story Telling

An obvious and easy way to incorporate story telling into your youth ministry is to include it in weekly messages. Again, using true and personal stories to illustrate your main points is much more powerful than a generic story about “a friend” or “a girl named Sarah.” Even if the story about your friend is true, unless your friend is telling it, there will be less of a connection between the story and your students. Aim to keep all your stories to personal and factual accounts.

Another way to incorporate story telling while also building community and connection is to invite leaders and students into the process. Some of the most powerful student ministry nights have featured a leader or student sharing their personal story of how Jesus changed their life. Consider structuring a series around the sharing of leader and/or student testimonies. Planning in advance will allow you to meet with each story teller to help them prepare and practice telling their story. In addition to giving them a platform to share the Gospel, you will also build community between story tellers and those who listen, resulting in the strengthening and building up of relationships within your ministry.

Look for ways to empower your students to tell their stories. Some may not feel comfortable sharing in front of the entire group, but that shouldn’t make their story any less valuable. All followers of Christ should be encouraged to write and track the story of how He has changed and is changing their life.

Consider hosting an event to help students write and tell their story, providing tips, personal assistance, creative options, and tools like a journal and pens. Some students might write their story like an essay, while others may want to write it like poetry or spoken word. Leave time at the end of the event for an “open mic” session for any who would like to share. Secure a few leaders and/or students ahead of time to share and help get things started.

When you incorporate story telling into your ministry, your goal should be to not only share your story or your leaders’ stories. It should be to champion and equip your students in the telling of their stories as well. Each follower of Jesus is part of God’s overarching story, and to value the telling of individual stories is to value our place in it.

Growing in Prayer: Meaningful Ways to Expand Your Prayer Life

What a privilege believers in Jesus have! We can come boldly to the very throne of God to make our requests! In Jesus, and through faith in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence. (See Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12.)

God tells us in the Bible that He sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers to help us pray. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He also moves us to address God the Father as “Abba” (Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is an Aramaic term for “Father” that is similar to our “Daddy” or “Papa.”  For the Holy Spirit to urge us to call God “Abba” means that through Jesus we have a personal, close, and affectionate relationship with the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe! Amazing!!

Have you spoken in this way to God yet? If not, give it a try! During your personal prayer time, address God as “Abba” or “Dad” or “Papa.” Of course, by using such a familiar term, we do not want to lose any respect for God; we do not want in any way to disrespect God. Rather, as one brother in Christ put it, we want to relate to God with familiar respect. Or, we might say, we want to relate to God with respectful familiarity. This is a high privilege our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us through His life, death, and resurrection.

In fact, I encourage you to actually say “Abba” out loud. Now an important first step in that direction is saying your private, personal prayers to God out loud. If you have never done that, give it a try! When God led me to begin praying out loud during my private prayer time, my prayers were transformed. All of a sudden they became more concrete. I didn’t just direct vague thoughts to God; I was putting those thoughts into specific words.

Praying out loud also made the personal nature of my relationship with God seem more real to me. Please understand: ever since the night God saved me in 1976, my relationship with Him was real. However, my sense of that reality heightened through praying out loud. When I pray out loud, it is like talking to another person in the room … because I am talking to another person in the room! God is a real Person and He is present. He is not far away somewhere “out there.” Through Christ I am in God (see Colossians 3:3) and God is in me (see 1 Corinthians 3:166:19). God is closer to me than any other person could ever be! Can I say again, “Amazing!!”?

And once you have taken that step of praying out loud by yourself, then take the step I mentioned earlier and address God, out loud, as “Abba” or “Daddy” or “Papa” … with the respect He is due. I am doing this in my prayer times. As I pray to Abba, one thing I am asking Him is that He would help me to better grasp His love for me. I am asking Him to help me experience His love in a deeper way, in a way that powerfully impacts me. Would you like to join me in making that request of God?

We learn from the Bible that asking God to help us grasp His love is a good and right thing to pray for. How so? Because we have record of the Apostle Paul praying for this very thing for the Ephesian believers. He asked “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Notice that not only does Paul pray for them to comprehend God’s love, he also prays for the strength and power to be able to grasp the love of Christ. We cannot know and experience God’s love on our own, through our own effort. We need divine enablement. We need God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp God’s love for us. Why? Because, as verse 19 says, the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” His love is so wondrous, so amazing that without God’s help there is no way we in our weak humanity can know it.

And if God grants us our request to experience His love more, we will be changed. We will be transformed. We will “be filled to all the fullness of God.” May God do that for us.

So join me in calling God “Abba.” Join me in praying out loud to our Father God. And join me in praying to experience His love in a deeper way.

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.

Navigating Marriage and Ministry: An Interview

One of the things Nick and I love about student ministry is that we individually have a passion for it, and get to do it together. It was something we both felt called to before we met, and it is something we have pursued throughout our marriage. It’s special to share a similar calling, something that we both believe in and value.

But we know it isn’t like that for everyone. We all have varying degrees of involvement in our churches and ministries–both as church-employed spouses, and not. In this interview-style post, we will approach the topic of spouses doing ministry together. Nick and I hope that our experience can offer some encouragement and insight to other married couples who may be navigating (or preparing to navigate) this whole marriage + ministry world. For the sake of clarity, Nick is employed full time by the church, while I volunteer as a small group leader and work outside the church.

Question: As the spouse employed by the church, how has support and participation from your spouse helped you in your ministry role?

Nick: I honestly don’t know where I would be without Elise. Having someone by your side who shares your passions, champions you, and bears the weight of what you are doing has been so encouraging and life giving. It has helped me to know that I have someone I can talk to who understands what I am feeling. I have been able to bounce ideas off of Elise. I can get a girl’s opinion on topics, conversations, and the ministry which is so needed. Without Elise I wouldn’t be where I am today, and honestly she has made me a better pastor by challenging and pushing me in what I am doing. She has been my biggest and most vocal supporter, especially as we have candidated together.

Q: What advice would you give a couple considering jumping into full-time ministry?

Nick: Make sure you are both on the same page with what you are doing. I am not saying you both need to have the same level of passion, but communicating about what you desire, where God is leading you, and what you want out of this are huge conversations. I have seen many friends struggle because they didn’t share their heart with their spouse and they have had to stop pursuing ministry to heal their marriage. So be open and transparent is the first part.

The second is protect your spouse who isn’t on staff. Often times churches look to hire two people for the price of one. Unless your spouse is getting a paycheck, they aren’t an employee and shouldn’t function as such. Talk through expectations as a couple, and then with the church staff.

Third, protect your time together. Don’t let ministry keep you from spending time with each other or your family. Don’t let ministry become a mistress.

Elise: Communication is key, both before you jump in and while you’re in the midst of ministry. Talk through what your ideal level of involvement looks like, and what areas you want to pursue. I would also recommend coming up with a mission statement of sorts, something that will help keep you centered on your ministry goals as a couple, and something you can revisit over the years when your goals might change.

It is also essential to set your priorities. My first priority is my relationship with Christ and my spiritual well-being. This means I often have to say no to things so that I make sure I’m being filled. I can’t give out of a dry well, which for me means I can’t be a leader or volunteer every time I’m asked. My second priority is to my marriage, and to support my spouse in his ministry role. Personally, I love being involved in student ministry, but I have to make sure I’m pouring into my husband even more than I am the students I serve.

Q: What has been one of the hardest aspects of pursuing ministry as a married couple?

Nick: Honestly, the hurt that comes with doing ministry. I am fiercely protective of Elise, and it has been so hard watching her get hurt by the church. Because we do ministry together, she knows when I am hurting and I know when she is. Ministry has extreme highs but really low lows too, and those cut deep. Let me encourage you to always protect and stand for one another. To always be each other’s champion and greatest advocate, but to also bring in people you trust. Have people you can go to who can speak into your lives and help care and guide you.

Elise: One of the hardest things for me has been sacrificing personal desires for the sake of God’s calling. And honestly, you will experience this whether you’re the one hired by the church or not. But for me personally, it’s meant letting go of some of my career goals and past jobs. It’s meant re-ordering my personal priorities in order to run wholeheartedly after what God is calling us to. It’s meant re-learning what it looks like to live a valuable, fulfilling life, as defined by Christ and not society. I’ve had to learn to identify the lies I tell myself, and speak truth into my heart and life.

Q: What advice would you give spouses not employed by the church, especially if they are struggling with being in a ministry context or knowing where to serve?

Elise: Again, communication is key. You need to communicate with God and with your spouse. If you’re struggling, tell God about it. Yes, He already knows, but the act of dialoging with Him about how you feel will help. It’s also important to make sure your spouse knows how you’re feeling, not in a way to guilt them but so that they can support and help you. Don’t blindside your spouse with your struggles when they become too big to suppress and inevitably blow up.

My other recommendation is to take action. If you’ve been serving somewhere and feel burned out, take a break. If you haven’t been serving and aren’t sure what to do, try getting involved in a ministry that interests you or could utilize your gifting. Sometimes the best thing to do is make a change–step back or step in and evaluate. I do encourage spouses of youth pastors to give student ministry a fair chance if they haven’t already. It doesn’t hurt to check it out and see if God is calling you to that area.

Nick: This is tough for me because personally I haven’t been on that side of ministry. But what I can tell you is this: if you are serving in ministry and your spouse isn’t, make sure to communicate often and clearly. Make sure to talk about schedules for work and for home. Make sure to set aside time for you as a couple, and also be willing to not just talk about “work.” Ministry is exciting and challenging and we want to share that. But that can be hard for your spouse if they aren’t involved with your area of ministry.

Let me also encourage you to help your spouse find where they need to be. I am thrilled that Elise serves in student ministry with me, but if she didn’t I would be okay with that. In fact if she served somewhere else, was using her gifts, and pointing people to Jesus, I would be beyond thrilled. Encourage your spouse to serve where they are passionate and their gifts line up.

When we were searching for jobs this last time, I had a huge prayer request: God help us to find the church we are called to and one that has a place for Elise to find deep friendships and affirmation of her gifts. I didn’t mind if Elise would want to serve elsewhere, I just wanted her to be affirmed and valued in her relationship with Jesus. That is what we should be desiring for our spouses.

Q: What if I don’t want to serve in student ministry? How can I still support my spouse who is working in that area?

Nick: I just want to say, it is okay that you don’t serve in student ministry. You don’t have to and you shouldn’t feel pressured to. What I would say is rejoice when your spouse shares good news and God stories. Get excited with them. Let them know how proud of them you are. Also, be understanding of the differences in schedules and time commitments, but make sure you talk through those as a couple. If you are finding time together isn’t a priority share that rather than harbor it.

Elise: I think one of the best things spouses can do is create a safe place for their church-employed spouse to come home to. I like to think of our home as an oasis, a calm in what can sometimes feel like a storm. No it isn’t always clean, and it is a rental, but I try to make it feel like home. I want it to have a calming effect so that when Nick gets home, he feels like he can rest, unwind, and recharge.

Q: Whether one or both spouses serve in student ministry, how do you set healthy boundaries? How do you make sure your marriage is a priority and that ministry issues do not bleed into your family time?

Elise: I think it’s essential to have “us” time built into our week. For us, this looks like regular weekly date nights and intentional time together on days off or over dinner. It doesn’t have to involve a ton of planning or a big production. It can just be take-out and a movie, or board games and snacks. Whatever it looks like, it’s time for just us to be together as a family, and to intentionally take a break from talking about ministry. Depending on the context, it also means not allowing phone calls or texts to interrupt our time. I strongly recommend having at least one “no-interruptions” time each week so that it is clear that your family is a priority.

Nick: I have worked in a variety of ministry settings with the workloads and hours being different in all of them. Having served in ministry for fifteen years now, I finally feel like we are beginning to have better boundaries.

The first thing I do is set hours for myself at work based upon a forty hour a week cycle. Now I know there are times we have to put in more hours, but we shouldn’t die to serve our ministry, we should die to self so Christ is glorified. And in order to die to self that means our priorities need to be correct: God, family, ministry. So for me, that means in order to have a healthy family life, I need to make sure I balance my work life.

I also try to limit work at home. When I am home I want to be fully present with Elise, and I would challenge you to be wholly present with your family as well. Sure I get the random texts and calls, the work emails, the Facebook messages, the Instagram tags, but my priority is my family and I am honest with people about that. If people don’t call me, I don’t hold it as a priority unless I see something that says otherwise. I try to create healthy boundaries between work and home.

I would also say making sure to have time with your spouse is huge. Elise and I have regular date nights on Fridays, and we talk about it. Not just to each other, but our students know, parents know, the church staff knows. In fact every Friday as I walk out, one of the receptionists asks what are our date night plans! It is awesome because people see the value that family holds in our lives and frankly, as a champion of family and student ministry it should. People should see it, and they should value and respect it. One of my favorite things is when our students see us out on a Friday and come say hello, but also ask how date night is going. They love it! And it helps to show young women what they deserve and how they should be treated, and it shows young men how to respect, honor, and uphold their sisters in Christ. Let people see you love your spouse and family, and they will intrinsically see how you love Christ.

Q: As the spouse not employed by the church, what are some ways your church-employed spouse can support you?

Elise: I think a big thing ministry-employed spouses can do is simply encourage their spouse, regardless of the context. Call out their gifting, support their passions, speak truth into their life. Sometimes it can be easy to feel discouraged, like we could be doing more, like we’re living in the shadows, or like we’re not contributing. Take time to uplift your spouse, and to encourage them to pursue their talents, hobbies, or interests.

Also, make sure time with your spouse is a top priority. I don’t want to fight against the ministry in order to have time with my husband. That’s a battle that can be difficult to win. Rather than make your spouse fight that battle, create intentional, quality time together. Take a break from whatever you’re working on and don’t bring it with you.

Q: I serve in student ministry full time and my spouse serves in a different ministry. How can I actively ensure I don’t leave them out of important decisions?

Nick: Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is huge! I can not say this enough. Make sure you talk through your schedules and calendar dates, and I would encourage you to plan six months out. Most ministry calendars are done by month or semester, so you know what is coming down the pipe. Take a day or evening and compare your calendars and make sure to show each other what you are doing. But even more than show, share the heart behind the events and planning. Let them hear and understand why things are happening when they are.

A few tips:

  • Create a shared Google Calendar of ministry events, work days/hours, and key meetings.
  • Periodically go to each other’s events to support one another and show unity in your marriage and the Body of Christ.
  • Share your heart and passions with each other.
  • Never value your ministry and calling over your spouses – God has uniquely called and gifted each of you and neither ministry should detract from the other.
  • Never use a ministry as weapon or assault. Don’t say “my ministry wouldn’t do that or schedule this way.”
  • Be transparent about what you are doing and with whom.
  • Be willing to admit when you mess up or don’t communicate.
  • Always be transparent and honest about how you are feeling – never harbor hurt, frustration, or anger. Those are seeds that the enemy would love to cultivate.
  • And once again: COMMUNICATE.

Q: I feel like we have a good marriage/ministry balance. Now what?

Nick: Praise God! That isn’t always the case, but if that is where you are keep pursuing it. Never get complacent in that, because when you do satan will love to throw a wrench into your marriage. This could be a time issue, a communication issue, or the issue of your work becoming your mistress. Keep protecting your time, relationship, and ministry balance.

I would also say that you should find ways to share this with others. Are there other couples you could pour into and mentor? Are you demonstrating this to your students? Have you shared about balance and healthy living? Find ways to not just keep a good balance but to equip and help others find theirs.

Elise: Keep up the great work! Because ministry and life are always changing, I don’t think we can get too comfortable. Keep pursuing your spouse, keep setting healthy boundaries, keep pursuing Jesus. And while you are doing that, find others who you can come alongside and encourage. Look for a younger couple to mentor. Share what you’ve found helpful with other ministry couples. Encourage those who are struggling. We must remember that none of us can do this alone, we all need each other.

We’d love to hear from you! Share your insights into maintaining a good marriage/ministry balance, how you set healthy boundaries, and the ways you prioritize your spouse.

An Approach to Discussing Modesty with Young Women

Growing up in a Christian context, I was privy to many a “modesty talk,” article, or lecture–even through college. Discussions about young women’s choices in dress and young men’s responses seemed to come up frequently, more often than many other equally important conversations. At times I could appreciate and resonate with what was being shared, and at others I felt like a lot was being hung on my shoulders. I eventually had to reach my own conclusions, because there often seemed to be two extremes, and with neither of which could I ever fully align.

The topic of modesty is part of a bigger conversation, one with many layers. And now as an adult youth leader, I want to encourage other youth leaders by sharing what I feel can be a helpful approach. I think this conversation is fluid, and can look different depending on the context, but can begin at the same starting point.

Where to begin

If you read nothing else, read this: When starting conversations about modesty (or really any topic in a young woman’s life) we first and foremost must be primarily concerned with the heart, mind, and soul of the woman. Clothing (and life) choices are always going to be a byproduct of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of young women–how they think about themselves and God, their worth and value, how they have been influenced by family and culture, and how they’ve grown up viewing their bodies.

To jump right to the issue of dress is to bypass the most important parts of a woman–her heart, soul, and mind–to go to what is truthfully the least important part–her appearance. While the rest of the world looks first at a woman’s appearance when determining things about her, the church is one place that should not. We should know better.

We must actively seek to build relationships with the young women in our churches. This will mean taking the time to get to know her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, which will most likely be shaped at least in part by her life experiences and relationships with family and friends. Only after getting to know her can you understand the “why” behind what she does and speak to that.

I beg my fellow youth leaders, do not reduce the ladies in your church and in your youth ministry to a body. To do so is to do a great disservice not only to women, but to the entire church. It reduces a woman’s value and importance, and often leads to focusing on symptoms rather than causes. Women are vital to the work of discipleship within the local church and they need to know that; they need to understand their importance and value first (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 4:8). They need to be built up in order to live out their calling. (See Romans 16:1-16 where Paul lists numerous women important to the work of the early church.)

Our first priority

There are many layers to the modesty conversation. In my experience, I have most often heard the layer that focuses on men’s responses to immodestly dressed women. This is an important aspect as caring for each other is part of church body life (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). But I would also suggest that it is not the most important layer to the conversation. In fact, I would argue that the most important–and most basic–layer is the young woman’s relationship with Jesus.

For a believer in Christ, all things must build from our understanding of and relationship with God (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 10:31). It is what should ultimately determine and dictate all our choices, actions, and beliefs. Do the young people in your church know this? Do they operate from this place? Do the young women look to Christ when deciding how they will dress, conduct themselves, and interact with the opposite gender? In fact, do they even have a personal relationship with Him?

As youth leaders, our primary concern should be this: do the young people in our ministries truly know Jesus? And if so, do they know that every single aspect of their life should build on and reflect Him? This is where the conversation must start. This should be our first priority in all things, including the modesty conversation. Once a young woman has an understanding of Jesus’ love for her, she should be encouraged to live out her love for Him in all she does.

Attire does matter

I want to be clear on this: I think modesty and clothing choices are important, particularly for the believer. I realized and decided this was important to me when I was in my late teens/early 20s, in response to my relationship with Jesus. I want to display my relationship with Him in my conduct and clothing, with the hope of giving Him glory and honoring the people around me (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

I also want my clothing choices to reflect the sense of self-worth and dignity that I have as a result of Christ. I’m not ashamed of my body, it was made by God and I reflect His image (Genesis 1:26-27). I want to clothe it in such a way that shows my love for Him, and my respect for myself.

From that place, a natural byproduct is the desire to dress in a way that won’t contradict my beliefs, or encourage someone to stumble. I say “encourage” because I cannot control what another person will think or do when they see me. But I can try my best to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and respond willingly to Him. If I feel like an outfit is questionable, I choose something else, or modify it with another clothing layer.

I share my personal convictions to show my heart for this topic, as well as to explain that I didn’t always feel this way. It took time for me to reach this understanding on my own because, as I stated before, the modesty conversations I heard typically focused on members of the opposite sex and their responses. Shifting the focus to Jesus and my relationship with Him turned modesty into a worshipful response instead of a frustrating duty.

Attire isn’t everything

When approaching conversations about modesty and male-female relationships, I believe it is vital not to hang all responsibility on the woman. Blaming her for a man’s actions, thoughts, and responses is wrong. We are each responsible for our own actions (Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Psalm 1), and we are all sinful beings (Romans 3:23; 5:12). This needs to be made clear during conversations with both genders. At the same time, it is each believer’s responsibility not to intentionally lead others into sin or to influence them to stumble (Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2; Romans 14:13; 1 Corinthians 8:9). In short, our choices in all things matter and are important.

That being said, I want to be clear: choices in clothing do not always influence responses, or protect against unwanted responses. A woman can dress completely modestly and still experience assault. And a woman dressed immodestly does not deserve assault or invite it by her clothing choices.

Growing up my parents were heavily involved in my clothing choices–they determined what was modest, and as believers in Christ, had a good and honorable understanding of this area. All my clothing purchases were approved by both my mom and dad. During my junior year of high school, I experienced multiple instances of verbal and physical sexual harassment by male classmates. Never was this behavior invited in any way–by my behavior toward them, or my clothing choices–and yet it still happened. I remember exactly what I was wearing on several of these occasions, and I was more covered than many female classmates typically were. My attire had no bearing on the incidents and did not protect me from unwanted words and actions.

The truth is, modesty will not protect young women. Simultaneously, a lack of modesty (real or perceived) must never be used to dismiss wrongful behavior toward them. We must be sensitive to this truth when we approach the conversation of modesty. And we must be clear with both genders–we are each responsible before God for our choices. Therefore, our choices in clothing, how we treat each other, how we view each other and how we speak, matter. May we all encourage the students in our ministries to treat each other as Christ has treated us.

Practical tips 

Along with taking the time to build relationships and have thoughtful conversations, there are some practical things you might find helpful when approaching the topic of modesty.

  1. Create a dress code or attire policy for your student ministry, and don’t leave out the young men. Make sure your guidelines are clear, direct, and provide a “why.” Students want to know why rules are in place, and articulating the “why” will show your heart behind your guidelines. Most often youth ministries provide dress codes around swimwear, but depending on your context, you may find it helpful to outline expectations for normal attire as well.
  2. In all things, give grace. Whether it involves your dress code, addressing a student directly, or speaking with the group at large, please season your words with grace. Discussions around modesty and the human body can carry such weight, and often times shame. I still remember many of the comments others have made about my body over the years. Whether the student is new to your ministry, or someone who you feel like “should know better,” remember that your goal is to point them back to Jesus and represent Him well in your interactions.
  3. Include parents. If you have attire expectations, explain these to the parents of each incoming group, or any time your guidelines change. Not all parents will have the same guidelines for their children, and some may not care at all, but they have more oversight into what is purchased than you will. If parents know your expectations and reasons for them, they can help ensure their students are following the rules.
  4. Don’t forget the leaders. If you have a dress code, the leaders should be the first ones to know it and model it for the students. They should also know the proper channels for handling issues that may arise. Make sure your leaders are equipped to serve well in all areas, including this one.

Remember this is an ongoing conversation, one that isn’t limited to just student ministry, clothing, or male-female relationships. The needs, beliefs, and values of a woman go beyond simple surface-level judgments. In order to best care for each other, we need to have open, Jesus-centered conversations. We need to have respect for each other. And above all, we need to do everything in love (Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 22:35-40).

Kitchen Floor Chats: 5 Tips for Building Relationships with Students

It was a conversation I wasn’t expecting. He had followed me into the church kitchen in hopes of getting an extra snack, but the conversation that followed tore at my heart.

Student: Hey, let me get a bag of those chips.

Me: If you come to leadership on Wednesday, you will get these snacks and more there.

Student: But I’m not on leadership… (voice trails off)

Me: Why not?

Student: I’m… I’m not sure I am a Christian. I don’t always act like it, and people that know me would probably tell you I am not a Christian and that I don’t believe in God.

So many thoughts flooded my mind that night. The first was, why is this conversation happening as I am kneeling on the floor in a kitchen frantically stuffing chips into a cabinet where hopefully they will last until Wednesday night? Then the second (after God slapped me upside my head) was, thank you Jesus for letting this conversation happen.

Ministry happens in many odd and miraculous ways. This young man was an eighth grade student who had dealt with a lot in his life and knew who Jesus was but hadn’t fully committed to letting Him rule his life. I never would have expected this conversation to happen the way it did, but it opened up a door for us to begin meeting weekly together and he agreed to answer the “hard questions” about Christianity honestly. I thank God for days where ministry just “happens” on kitchen floors and across counter tops.

The question we should ask is how do we get there? So often conversations like these happen at times and in ways we would least expect, but they happen because there has been trust built! This student was someone I had intentionally been plugging into in small but very meaningful ways, and I am convinced if we do more of this, we will indeed start having more kitchen floor conversations about Jesus. From these kitchen floor chats we will see that the next logical step is a mentoring relationship, but first we must get to the kitchen floor. The following are just some helpful and practical tips to begin the framework–the trust factor–that will lead to these conversations and more!

1. Acknowledge them

You cannot run an effective ministry if you don’t even acknowledge students when they are there. Not just on youth group or leadership nights. Acknowledge them all the time. On Sunday mornings, at the grocery store, where they work, even on date night. My wife and I bump into students all the time on date night and we love to pause and chat with them. Our priority is our time but we also love and acknowledge our students so they know that we care about them.

2. Know their name

It doesn’t seem like much but there is so much value in being known. When someone calls you by name it means they remember you and care. This is more than many students get on a daily basis. Their teachers don’t always remember them, their coaches forget them (especially if they aren’t a starter), employers see them as a number, and sometimes in families they feel forgotten.

3. Invest in their life

Go to their activities, and follow up with them! A huge thing with students is caring about what they do. I recently went to an orchestra concert for a few students and the smiles that came across their faces knowing they had an audience filled with supporters who didn’t need to be there made my day! They still tell people “my youth pastor cares enough to watch me play the bass.” Another student is into knitting (something I am not) but I ask all the time what she knits and who she knits for. She gets so excited sharing what she is passionate about and loves to come and show me gifts she makes for local widows.

4. Follow through

If you are going to do something then do it! Do not “forget,” do not “find something else to do,” but do it. Of course we will all miss things, but tell them you won’t be there, don’t leave it up to them to figure it out. Students have enough people letting them down, far be it from us to let them down also.

5. Live a life worthy of imitation

This is one we should all be doing. If we are going to call students to live like Jesus and to give their lives for Him we should be doing this as well. Students should see this in all aspects of our lives. How we speak to our spouses, how we raise our children, how we respond to frustrations (like when they talk during our messages or overflow the toilet twice in one night), how much time we spend with Jesus, how we care for others, and how we love.


This list is not exhaustive, but it is the framework for building the relationship that leads to kitchen floor conversations about Jesus. I am excited to see what God is going to do through this mentoring relationship and after that night, I am praying for many more conversations about Jesus in places and ways I would never expect!

Lord Jesus, use us to have conversations about Christianity and salvation in ways we never see coming so that many more students will enter into Your kingdom and experience Your everlasting love!

13: Caring for Students Experiencing Abuse

Disclaimer: What follows is a raw and emotional retelling of the trauma I walked through as a child. This is in no way written to impart blame or anger upon anyone involved. I have made my peace with this. I have asked for forgiveness for my actions and thoughts. I have forgiven others for what I was put through. Please note I am intentionally leaving names out, but know that my parents are innocent in this. They had no idea what was happening and are fully absolved from any guilt real or imparted.


Thirteen, to some it’s just a number, to others it’s a time of coming of age. But to me, 13 signified so much more.

13: The number of years the abuse went on for.

13: The age I was freed from the abuse.

13: The years I would never have back.

13: The age that I became angry and turned my back on God.

13: The day I turned into a statistic because I was abused and I survived.

13.

No one would ever have guessed that I was abused. If you had seen my family when I was a kid, we were the typical church family. Five kids, two parents, all went to church and participated. All the kids were homeschooled. Everything seemed fine. Everyone from the outside looking in thought that it was the perfect Christian family.

If only they could have seen the truth. The truth that in the midst of perceived perfection lay broken people grappling with a horror few would ever want to counsel.

The abuse started when I was young. In fact, I don’t remember a day without it. For thirteen years I was abused emotionally, verbally, mentally, and physically. I remember being told I was worthless. I remember being beaten for angering someone. I remember living in fear that if I breathed wrong I would be hurt and hunted for what I had done.

Each day, I tried to steel myself towards the very real pain I would endure. I found ways to remove myself when it would happen. I would think about life outside of who I was. I would imagine myself in a world free from pain and hurt. I would immerse myself in the fairy tale worlds of the books I so sought to be a part of. I would run and hide. At times I ran away. I tried to tell people at different times but recanted my testimony soon after because I would be abused even worse. Each day I would tell myself to “just survive”.

The hell that I endured seemed to be never ending. The physicality of the abuse left very tangible scars. My hands still shake to this day. I have little feeling in parts of my body. The emotional wounds run deep. When I see people abused and hurt, I grieve and weep. The depth of their pain I feel and it takes me back. Back to when I was young, innocent, defenseless, and a different person. The images of what happened still flash through my mind periodically and invoke various emotions.

13: I remember the day when the abuse was no more.

The person responsible was arrested that day. An episode of COPS played out at our home as the person was tackled by multiple police officers after threatening harm to someone else. I stood there watching as a thirteen-year-old boy mesmerized by how quickly it was over. The threat was gone. Removed for good. I should have rejoiced. I should have come clean. But like many who have experienced trauma my response was quite the opposite.

13: The age at which I became a radically different person.

I lashed out. At family, specifically my parents. At siblings who weren’t abused. I alienated friends. I didn’t trust anyone. I cursed God for the hell He had put me through. I cursed my abuser. In fact, I went so far as to not only curse that person, I vowed to hurt them and to kill them.

This was not an idle threat. I had planned it out and knew exactly what I would do if I could just get close enough. Even typing this out sickens me to think of how hurt and lost I was then. For years, I allowed the hate and anger to control who I was. It dictated how I responded to those around me. How I maligned those I perceived as weak. How I became the bully. How I became the person I had hated.

18: The year that all changed.

I had gone through thirteen years of abuse and five years of anger-fueled rebellion and reaction. I had also put on the easily-seen-through facade of the “good youth group kid.” I will never forget the night when our youth pastor spoke about forgiveness and loving those who hurt us. I laughed. Out loud. I was that kid. I couldn’t stand hearing such hypocrisy and blatant disregard for the hurt and broken. Love one another? Love those who persecute you? I laughed and screamed at God. I got into my car and drove home at speeds that could have killed me if I took one turn incorrectly.

The entire way home I yelled at God. Screamed at Him. “HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN TO ME?!” “YOU DID THIS! I WAS innocent…” The words just stopped. I was wrecked with sobs. All the hurt and pain came rushing out of me. I felt God say in that moment, “Nick, so was I. I walked through that with you. I sustained you. I brought you here.” I tried to argue back, “But you don’t understand the pain, the hurt. I am used and broken.” God replied, “You are not broken, you are MY child. MY son. MINE.”

God convicted my heart that night. I confessed my anger and hate. I apologized for my evil thoughts of murder. I asked God to renew my heart and to help me live as He lives for us: as a sacrifice. I wrote my abuser a letter that night absolving them of guilt and telling them that I forgave them. Since that time we have worked toward healing our relationship. They have gotten help for a variety of issues affecting them and we have reconciled much of our past. It isn’t perfect but what relationship is?

Why share my story?

So why write this out? Why now? This post isn’t simply a story to share about my life, it is a story that is meant to instill hope and understanding about an issue that is happening all around us and in our churches. It is a way to encourage youth workers to care for the abused in their communities and churches, to be on the lookout for those who cannot fend for themselves. To be fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters to those who have lost them.

No one knew what was happening to me. To most, I was the hard, antagonistic, and rude student. But one youth pastor continued to love me, to preach Christ crucified, dead, and alive, who taught on forgiveness and compassion. That youth pastor broke down my walls and helped to shape me into the minister I am today.

This is our mantra. This is our calling: to minister to those that others won’t. That means the abused and the abuser.

Resources and suggestions

This is a list of resources and suggestions to help you in caring for these individuals. It is not exhaustive, but these do work:

  • Listen to people. Listen to what a student says, if they talk of fear, not wanting to be at home, or they talk about being away from everything.
  • Watch your students. Watch for behavior changes. Did the once outgoing student suddenly withdraw? Did the quiet kid become rowdy and disruptive?
  • Show empathy and sympathy. You don’t always have to cry but let your students who come to you know that you love and care for them and that you hurt with them. As the body of Christ, we are all united in our love and care for each other so this should be a natural outflow of that.
  • Don’t not respond. If someone comes to you with this type of scenario don’t brush it off or have something better to do like check your phone. Pay attention and address it.
  • Prepare to counsel the victim, the victim’s family, the abuser, and the abuser’s family. This may mean purchasing counseling books, attending or watching seminars, or having a crisis counselor on your church staff. The point is, be prepared.
  • Network and build resources within your community. There are hundreds of national resources for youth ministries with this type of situation, but what local sources are there for you? Have you reached out to others? Are these people members of your church? Networking helps more than you can imagine.
  • When you don’t know, always refer. Referral is a good thing, not a bad one. You wouldn’t go to a pediatrician for major open heart surgery. They refer out for your benefit. Do the same for your students.
  • Provide a safe place to be and to share. Let students see you as honest and loving. Let them know you won’t air their stories everywhere. Let them know you always have their back.
  • Love well. Love the abused, the broken, the hurting. Love those who hurt others. We are called to love by the Father of Love. God is our very definition of love. If we do not love across the board to all then we are not following the calling of loving others.
  • Pray. Pray hard and pray often. Pray before it happens. Pray when you become aware. Pray for healing after you find out. Pray for protection. Pray for the enemy to be banned from your ministry. PRAY.
  • Don’t be silent. Speak on the topic. Speak on helping others. Speak about being a safe place.
  • National resources include: Door of Hope 4 TeensCrisis ChatTeens Helping TeensThe National Domestic Violence HotlineRAINN Sexual Assault HotlineAmerican Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Child Help.
  • Remember to research mandated reporting for your area and ministry. Many people in ministry positions will be the first to hear about abuse and as such you may be required to report on it to the authorities. It would be wise to know what must be reported and who you should report it to.

Breaking the Youth Pastor Mold

Back in the 90s there was a stereotypical youth pastor. He was a young, hip, 20-something who had just graduated from Bible college or grew up in the church he was now serving. He was loud, played guitar, and had a stellar video game collection. He introduced students to games that today would lead to a lawsuit, drove the church van like it was a hot rod, and only stuck around for 2-4 years. He typically got talked to by the elders at least once a month about the students’ and his behavior that the church didn’t like.

Fast forward to today and youth pastors look exceptionally different. We come in all different shapes, sizes, personalities, ages, and backgrounds. And not all of us are male either. We live in a very different world where youth ministers have changed and grown into capable leaders and servants who remain in youth ministry for years, even decades. But the reality is that the perception of a youth pastor has not changed.

There are still those who look at youth pastors as assistant-level staff, who do not function in the same capacity as senior-level staff. They still see a youth pastor as the immature and brazen young person looking to make a name for themselves. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of today’s youth pastors look exceptionally different.

Yes, many youth pastors will be young and fresh and looking to take the world by storm for Jesus, but that doesn’t just describe youth pastors. I became a senior pastor when I was just 23 and I will tell you, that was a challenge. I was seen as the young and rash pastor who was trying to move in on the turf of the veterans in town. But the truth is that there a variety of styles, shapes, and personalities when it comes to being any type of pastor. It isn’t an age or maturity issue, it is a calling.

So what makes a youth pastor? The calling and passion that God Himself has instilled in someone’s life. I have had the pleasure of learning under, working with, and witnessing youth pastors of all different types lead and care for students. They were loud, soft spoken, energetic, reserved, up front people, the behind the scenes type, gifted in speaking, a counselor, a Disney movie lover, a cat hater, a big kid, a theologian. But most of all, they were men and women who above all else loved Jesus and loved students as He did.

Today, youth pastors are vastly different than they were back in the 90s. They aren’t looking to use youth ministry as a stepping stone to being a senior pastor. They aren’t looking to break all the church rules and upset the elder board. They aren’t looking to be everyone’s best friend. They are looking to love students where they are at, to be a beacon of light in a dark world that tells students God doesn’t matter or care. They are ministering to students who have been hurt, abused, told they aren’t worth anything, forgotten, cast out, and left alone.

Youth pastors stand together under the banner of Christ to care for the upcoming generations that are hurting and broken. They are old, young, short, tall, black, white, Bible school dropouts and seminary grads. They are dynamic speakers who draw crowds and quiet disciple makers who draw 4-5 students. They are musicians and people who sing poorly, loudly proclaiming the salvation of Jesus. They are fallen people who would do anything to be the hands and feet of Jesus today to the students they serve.

I am proud to say I am a youth pastor. I am not a silicone mold, I am my own person. I do not fit the stereotype. I am broken, I am sinful, I am forgiven, I have a calling, and I love students. To all my fellow youth pastors: you matter more than you know! We may never hear it, but the impact we have on the lives of the students we serve is greater than we will see this side of heaven. Fight the good fight brothers and sisters, and never fit the mold! Be you, be unique, and be the hands and feet of Jesus to students you serve.

I am a youth pastor! What’s your story?

Journey in Prayer: 7 Steps Toward a Rich Prayer Life

Prayer is vital to my walk with the Lord. By “prayer,” I mean simply talking with the Lord. I am so grateful that the sovereign Creator, the holy and only God of the universe allows me, a sinful creature, to come directly to Him. He not only allows it, He has made it possible. He has opened the way to Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus. I like how Ephesians 3:12 puts it: “In Him (Jesus) and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Because Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and returned to the Father, I can boldly approach God’s throne of grace through Jesus, my great High Priest (see Hebrews 4:14-16).

I want to share my journey in prayer over the past 43 years. In particular, I want to tell you about specific ways to pray God has shown me. I think of them as prayer steps in my journey with Jesus. Taking these steps has deepened my experience of the Lord through prayer.

Step #1: Committing to a daily time of prayer.

Right after I became a believer in Jesus, during my freshman year of college, I began practicing daily prayer. After I was done with classes for the day, I would return to my dorm room, sit on my bunk and spend time with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. This practice laid the foundation of a daily practice of prayer which has been a bedrock foundation of my journey with Jesus.

Step #2: Using the ACTS approach to prayer.

“ACTS” is an acronym which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. You can find these kinds of prayer used by God’s people in the Bible. Adopting the ACTS approach to prayer has helped me to understand these different types of prayer and to regularly incorporate them in my practice of prayer. Please understand: this is not a rigid formula I follow in all my prayers. Rather, I generally follow this outline during my longer times of prayer. By contrast, if I am in need of God’s immediate help in a particular situation, I do not adore, confess, and thank before I ask Him for His aid. I just cry out, “Help me!”

Step #3: Praying out loud during my personal prayer times.

This step was, and continues to be, very significant. Admittedly, at first it felt strange and awkward. But the more I prayed aloud, the more comfortable I felt. I also realized some real benefits. I was able to focus my thoughts and make my prayers more concrete. Talking aloud increased my sense of actually relating with the Lord, that He indeed was right there with me in the room and that I was personally connecting with Him. On a personal note, being the private person that I am, I need to be assured that no one can overhear me during my prayer times. That means I pray in the basement, usually in the morning before anyone else is up.

Step #4: Praying Scripture.

At first this too may seem a strange approach to prayer. Praying Bible verses back to God?! Yes, indeed! That is exactly what it is. And it’s not just some modern approach to prayer. People in the Bible prayed Bible verses back to God! One very clear example is in Acts 4:23-31 where the believers in the early church incorporated verses from the Old Testament, especially Psalm 2, in their prayer to the Lord. What I have found is that the Bible gives me content for my prayers, especially for the “Adoration” part. I also have the assurance that when I pray Scripture, I am praying what is true and what is according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14).

Step #5: Praying “all the time.”

My point here is that there came a time in my prayer experience when my praying to the Lord went beyond my designated daily prayer appointment with God. I began to include spontaneous prayers throughout the day. Something along the line of what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” Another way of thinking about this prayer step is captured in the phrase “practicing the presence of the Lord.” It is an increasing awareness of the Lord’s continual presence. This awareness can be expressed through spontaneously praying throughout the day—and when awakening at night—and when I rise in the morning.

Step #6: Having times of unhurried prayer.

I am a structured person by nature. I structure my day according to a schedule—what I do first, then second, then third, etc.—often with specific time allotments attached. In that schedule, my daily prayer is generally confined to a certain amount of time. What I have found very helpful is to plan an unhurried time with the Lord in prayer. Then I am less prone to be thinking about what’s next in the day and I can be more relaxed and focused on praying. I find that my sabbath day (Monday) is the time when unhurried prayer works the best.

Step #7: Saturating my prayer with the Gospel.

This is my most recent prayer step. I am learning how central the Gospel is in my journey with Jesus. Believing in the good news that Jesus died for my sins and came back to life is not simply my “ticket” into heaven. It is the power of God for the continual transformation of my life into Christ’s likeness. I need to evermore believe the Gospel, rehearse it, and live out its marvelous truth. And so I fill my prayers with the Gospel message, especially toward the beginning of my daily prayer time. I have memorized key Bible verses which give the Gospel and I incorporate them into my adoration of the Lord, my thanks to the Lord, and my confession before the Lord.


I have shared with you a lot of things about prayer. My goal in sharing these steps in my journey in prayer is to not to overwhelm you; rather, it is to encourage you to take one step in your own prayer journey. Step #1 is critical and so I urge you if you have not taken this step, start with this one. If you already have a scheduled time of daily prayer, consider taking one of the other steps.

Journey on with the Lord in prayer! It is a wonderful privilege God has provided us through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

Learning About Success from the Life of Joseph

Success. It’s something our culture thrives off of and lives for. It consumes many of us as we struggle to achieve our vision of a successful life. It has become a necessity for earning the respect and attention of colleagues and friends.

What does success look like to you and how do you measure it? Is it reaching a goal or milestone, becoming financially stable, achieving power, or becoming well-known? Whatever it is, it always involves forward motion, personal growth, and some measure of independence or self-reliance. But what happens when we don’t see our version of success?

I struggled with feeling unsuccessful in my career when I took a part time job that had nothing to do with my field. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile with my work, or achieving anything in my career. I wondered what God was doing, but I didn’t feel like putting in the effort to find out. I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible and find something that would feel more fulfilling.

In church, I spent most Sundays sulking in my seat, thinking about all the great things people around me were doing while my life was at a standstill. Then one Sunday there was a message on Joseph and my entire perspective changed. God completely transformed my view of success through the life of Joseph (chronicled in Genesis 37-50), teaching me that His definition of success is much different than mine.

Work for the Lord

The first lesson that the life of Joseph taught me was to work for the Lord wherever I am, no matter where that might be, no matter what I am doing. Regardless of where Joseph was, he was constantly focused on honoring God and working for Him. He spent time in slavery and in prison—places far worse than a frustrating job—but didn’t let that detract him from the Lord’s work.

As followers of Jesus, the Bible calls us to work as though we’re working for Him, not for men, because we are ultimately serving Christ (Colossians 3:23-24). This sounds simple, but it should affect every aspect of what we do. This truth calls me to examine whether or not my work is honoring to the Lord. Am I diligently and thoroughly completing each task in a way that represents my love for Him? Or am I doing the minimum to simply get the job done? Joseph challenges me to do more and be more for the Lord.

Don’t get distracted by circumstances

Sometimes the circumstances of our lives cause us to question where God is and what He is doing. No doubt Joseph wondered this as he was being sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites by his brothers. Or when Potiphar’s wife lied about him attempting to rape her, which got him thrown into prison. Or when his fellow prisoner, the chief cupbearer, forgot about him when he was restored to his post by Pharaoh. But when we look at Joseph’s life as a whole, God allows us to see how He was working through each circumstance to bring about His divine plan.

In the midst of a challenging circumstance, it’s difficult or even impossible to see the big picture. At times God gives us a glimpse into what He is doing and how He is working, but even when He doesn’t, we can know for certain that He is working (Romans 8:28). Difficult circumstances are an exercise in trust and obedience as we make ourselves available for the Lord’s work and watch to see where He will move.

Don’t worry about direction

When I look at the life of Joseph, I see that God’s way of working doesn’t always make sense and sometimes feels backward. Instead of building from a slave to free man to a leader, Joseph went from being a slave to a prisoner and then to a leader. Going from a slave to a prisoner sounds like a backward move and I’m sure at the time it felt like things were going from bad to worse. Where’s the success in becoming a prisoner? But God used this as a critical step to get Joseph where He ultimately wanted him, in Pharaoh’s court.

When I went from having a great full-time job in my career field to that part time job, it absolutely felt like a backward move. The forward momentum of my career suddenly stopped and I felt like I lost all that I had gained. It was important for me to learn that a “backward” move didn’t really mean anything to the whole picture of my life because God was using it to put me where He wanted me. This was a step in a direction that only He knew and I needed to trust Him in it.

God is always with you

This is the greatest, most amazing truth for followers of Jesus: the God of the universe is with us (Matthew 28:20)! And God was with Joseph, as Genesis 39 states multiple times (verses 2, 21 and 23). We, like Joseph, never have to face the challenges of life alone. We have a constant source of strength, help and guidance throughout our lives. And this brings me to my next lesson from Joseph.

Success is from the Lord

Not only does the account of Joseph’s life make it clear that God was with him, but it also clearly states that the Lord gave him the success he experienced (Genesis 39:2, 23). This is a convicting reminder for my selfish pride; when I think I am successful, I’m not. Only the Lord can generate success and He grants it to whomever He wills whenever He wants.

This should cause us to question, the next time I am praised for a job well done, to whom do I credit my success? Do I build myself up or do I give credit to the only Reason for my achievement? It’s important to mentally make the shift from thinking of success as me-centric to God-centric as He is the one deserving of all glory and praise.

Learn God’s definition of success

Finally, and most importantly, we need to adopt God’s definition of success, which is extremely counter-cultural. He isn’t looking for His followers to get rich quick or achieve fame status, though at times He does grant those things and more. His definition of success results in the saving of lives.

In Joseph’s story, God used all the circumstances—good and bad—to bring about His ultimate plan to save His people from seven years of famine (Genesis 41-47). In our story, God wants to use us to save lives not just temporarily, but eternally. He moves us, through our circumstances, to lost and hurting people, in desperate need of salvation. Our job is to look for and take advantage of those opportunities, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20).