What Are You Teaching: All Church Series

Every now and then, our church does an all-church series. More recently, we have been using the spring semester to collectively work through a study built by multiple staff members to help our church journey in the Bible together. It involves all ages and happens in our services and in all the classes and groups that meet. But there are some unique challenges and circumstances to consider when doing these studies to help them succeed and truly be engaging for students and families.

Make sure your message relates to students. Sometimes when moving through a set curriculum for the church, there are applications and insights that are really beneficial but not always relevant and helpful to students. So look to make sure what you are teaching and encouraging students to apply is relatable to their lives and circumstances. Providing them with real and tangible applications will help them see how the Bible is practical and relevant to their lives.

Don’t teach the same thing that is taught in the services. This is a big deal because part of our vision for students should be to help them engage the church holistically and not just student programming. If we are teaching the exact same message with the same points in student programming that is taught in the sermon, students will tend to default to only the student gathering and forgo the Sunday service. This isn’t beneficial and further drives a wedge that doesn’t need to be there to begin with. Instead, even if you are teaching on the same passage from the sermon, look to find different insights and understandings. Highlight how passages can provide various applications and interpretations. Bring in new illustrations and ways to immerse students in Scripture, and help them discuss what they’re learning in both contexts.

Collaborate with others. One of the best things you can do in these types of series is talk to other staff members and leaders to see what they are teaching. This will not only provide you with insight and creativity, but will hopefully afford you new and intentional opportunities to partner with other ministries. If the adult groups are looking at a particular aspect, it may be helpful to both adults and students to know what each group is doing as there is a high potential students’ parents will be in the adult group. This provides overlap and a platform on which to engage ongoing conversations within families.

Remember everyone may not be on the same page. It is important to remember when going through all-church series that some students may not have a full grasp, if any, of the material you are walking through. So make sure to do due diligence and help students fully understand what is being taught. Also, remember that students may not be present at each level of the study due to other commitments and so summarizing what has been taught is important and also helps students continue to remain engaged.

Encourage students to be a part of the broader conversation. Make sure your students know everyone in the church is going through the series, and that they have a voice because they are the church. Encourage them to engage in conversations with family and friends. Challenge them to ask deep and meaningful questions. Provide outlets and opportunities for them to engage with church leadership on these topics and series.

What are You Teaching: Reading & Studying the Bible

“Only eight percent of global teens believe the Bible is the word of God and read the Bible several times a week.”

This is a stat the Barna Group posted on their Instagram account last week which caught my attention. It didn’t really surprise me, but it did cause me to reflect on how we can better equip and encourage students to read and study Scripture on their own.

If your students are anything like me, I wasn’t taught Bible study methods growing up. I was given a series of Bibles over the years, and found myself navigating through them on my own. Teen study Bibles helped to some degree, but I wasn’t taught what to do when I had personal devotional time. So I just read passages and tried to make sense of them, often failing to do so.

I can’t help but wonder if the students in our programs have had similar experiences. If they have, it’s no wonder they don’t want to read the Bible. If you don’t know how to understand it or where to start, it can feel like a daunting, confusing, and sometimes boring task. Students should be equipped to read, study, ask questions, and understand, so that they can uncover the beauty, depth, and purpose of God’s word.

In this third installment of the What are You Teaching series, I’d like to offer some ways we can help encourage, train, and engage students in their personal Bible study.

Translations: A simple place to start is by making sure your students not only have their own Bible, but one in a version or translation that is easy for them to understand. If the language/wording used is difficult to follow, chances are students won’t stick with it for very long. So look for a solid version that is written in a way that is clear and easy-to-read. Check out this past post for some suggestions.

Audio Bibles: Some students hate reading, or struggle with it. Others find themselves so busy with school, activities, and other commitments, that it is genuinely difficult for them to carve out time to read. Whatever the case may be, don’t forget that an audio Bible is an option. It may help your students to read and listen at the same time, or they can listen while driving or riding in the car between activities. For others, it may help them to calm their mind before going to sleep or while getting ready for school in the morning. If they’re interested in listening, they can download the YouVersion Bible app for free and listen to audio recordings of multiple versions.

Bible study methods: So your students have a Bible, now what? Make sure they are equipped to study it on their own. Some basic study methods include O.I.A. (Observation, Interpretation, and Application), Discovery Method, or S.O.A.P. (Study, Observe, Apply, Pray). These will help your students as they encounter Scripture on their own. You may also want to supply them with pre-scripted studies, that either you or a trusted source have created. Check out this post for some suggestions.

Recommended reading: As you get to know your students, you will learn their passions, interests, and struggles. Rather than have them start reading anywhere, guide them to passages that will appeal to and capture their interest, speak to their season of life, or help them get to know Jesus better. Sometimes students struggle to read the Bible because they arbitrarily open it and read wherever the pages fall. Or they may try to read through a book and get bogged down in a confusing story. Help them connect to the Bible by making personalized reading recommendations.

Start a study: Consider helping students grow further by hosting an in-depth Bible study for those who are interested. You can use this time to equip them further, challenge and encourage them, and address topics with which they may be wrestling. This is another opportunity to personalize it to your group, helping them see how the Bible connects to their real life situations.

Questions: For a while it seems in some churches, asking questions about the Bible was almost taboo. Help continue to break that stereotype for your students by encouraging them to ask questions about the Bible. Host a “stump the pastor” night or an “ask me anything” about the Bible. Even if you don’t know all the answers, take time to do the research and come back with information. Students are naturally curious. Encourage them to bring their questions to God, He can handle them all.

Creativity: Tap into creative ways to read, study, and process the Scriptures. Help your students see that it isn’t just about opening the Bible in a quiet room. God is creative, and we can interact creatively with Him and His word. This may look like artistic representation of Scripture through drawing, painting, or Bible journaling. Students may want to write their own music, spoken word, or poetry in response to what they’ve read. They don’t have to share their creative response with anyone but God, but if they want to, consider hosting an event for them to share their creations and the story behind them.

Make it personal: Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? Has it changed your life? Have you wrestled through difficult passages? Share this with your students and bring them into your story of encountering Scripture. Students need to see adults who believe in God’s word and how it has been a part of their lives. They need to see that it can be a real and important aspect of the Christian life, and not a boring part of their to-do list to check off. Students connect with personal stories and will benefit from hearing yours.

What are You Teaching: Culture and Worldviews

Current events, cultural movements, worldviews, and relevant topics in the lives of students present great opportunities to dig deep and critically think about practical biblical application. But in order to handle these topics well, we need to be mindful of what is happening, how we approach them, and what the Bible says about them. Last week, we kicked off this series by discussing spiritual rhythms and today we want to continue by engaging the topic of culture and worldviews.

Speaking on these topics is paramount to our ministries because it helps our students see how the Gospel is relevant and applicable in our present reality and culture. Students are seeking to understand how they can be Christians in a world that is juxtaposed to Christianity, and at the same time trying to understand how the issues of today are guided by God’s Word. So as we teach on these areas, it is important that we help students see how the Gospel transcends time and space and the real applications it has for us now. This will allow our students to make biblically-informed decisions and help to elicit needed change from a Godly perspective.

Know your topics. If we are teaching about a topic our students are dealing with, we owe it to them to be well-versed and knowledgeable about that topic. For instance, if you are going to teach on sexuality, it would be beneficial for you to know the correct terminology, culture perceptions, and biblical insight. This will allow you to engage your students where they are at and you will be able to help them understand how to apply the Bible to these types of conversations and cultural settings.

Dig deep into current cultural contexts. I think sometimes it is easy for us to simply present what the Bible says and believe that our students see the application within their spheres. But the truth of the matter is it can be hard for students (and really anyone) to apply what the Bible says to modern context. The Bible doesn’t speak to every circumstance in our present culture, but there are principles and truths that do apply. Helping our students understand how to apply these truths means we must first understand their cultural context. We need to know what issues they are dealing with, why certain issues are important to them, and how to help them navigate cultural distortions of biblical truths. By doing this you can help your students prepare to engage this world with biblical truths that are covered in love and grace.

Know the pressures your students are facing. This is more than just knowing the cultural context, it is about knowing your community and students and the pressures that are uniquely surrounding them. No one group of students, communities, or environments will be exactly the same. So it is important to know the tensions your students are encountering. It may be issues with technology, sex and identity, or social justice concerns. Mental health could be a big factor for your students, or it could be socioeconomic status, or questions about faith and God’s goodness. Whatever the pressures are, the only way you will know them is by engaging your students, families, and communities and seeking to understand their key concerns.

Be aware of how your students think and engage. It may surprise you how your students think and what they believe. They may have differing opinions than yours on biblical truths and principles, and that is okay. Students, like everyone else, need to formulate their own views as they make their faith their own. This doesn’t mean we sit by passively and treat them with kid gloves, but instead we take their opinions and views into consideration and don’t just shut them down. Allow them to push back, ask questions, and formulate a biblical worldview as they navigate their faith.

Give practical application. This is a big one for students. So often they want to contribute to change, growth, and progress, and the application we give should help guide them in how to meet those desires. If they care about justice, help them find ways to advocate in your community and nationally. If it’s about providing food and clean water, guide them to local food pantries and national organizations they can support. If it’s about race and equality, help them find ways to engage their communities in dialogue and movement toward practical change. If it involves changing perspectives and views that may be harmful in the church, show them where to serve, how to elicit change, who to talk to, and advocate with them.

Present biblical truths with grace and love. As I shared above, students will often have differing views than what we may present. Whether it’s because of personal preference, experience, or cultural impact, their views may not always align with the truths of God’s Word. Even when what we present counters their views and perspectives, we must always remember to share these truths with love and grace. Students don’t often hold differing views just to disagree and cause tension, but their views are often informed by relationships, sympathy and empathy, and cultural trends and norms. Because of this, we must be willing to engage in dialogue and discussion that both hears and understands our students and their views, but also lovingly presents the truth of the Bible. Remember it isn’t always about being right, but instead helping to shape and guide our students to an understanding of God’s Word and helping them make their faith their own.

What are You Teaching: Spiritual Rhythms

One of the questions I get asked frequently is, “What are you teaching students?” Whether it’s parents, church leaders, other student workers, or even students themselves, it seems at some point everyone is curious about what is being taught. This week I’m starting a new series we are calling “What are You Teaching,” which will focus on different types of teachings we utilize in our student ministry program.

Before I begin to talk about one of the areas we teach on, it is important to note that while we do focus on different teaching styles, themes, and topics, we also have to be aware of to whom we are communicating. Our program has two different days that we operate (Sundays and Wednesdays) and both draw very different groups of students.

Our Wednesday night program is more invitational in structure and is focused on discipleship and evangelism. This means when we teach on topics in this environment, we stay at an entry- to intermediate-level of understanding to make sure our teaching reaches the majority of those in attendance. In contrast, our Sunday morning programming is geared toward equipping and training our students to be disciple-makers. This means we often go deeper into topics and look at application that leads not only to heart transformation but outward replication.

While both programs are focused on discipleship, how we meet that goal looks different based upon who is in attendance. I would encourage you to think through those aspects of your programing in order to help you pick the right teaching for the group that is relatable, applicable, and transformational.

This week I want to talk about spiritual rhythms and why teaching on them is important. I believe it is easy to assume these rhythms are taught at home and/or in “big church.” But assuming this puts both our students and families at a disadvantage. It is also unhelpful to assume that your students are not being taught or equipped at home in these rhythms. All that to say, don’t assume either direction. Instead view this as an opportunity to explain spiritual rhythms, allow those who haven’t engaged with them to do so, and help those who already engage with them to broaden and strengthen how they do.

Teaching on spiritual rhythms is something that can be taught to students who fall across all parts of the spiritual spectrum. But we must be aware of which rhythms we are teaching to each group to make sure they are translatable and applicable. For instance, I wouldn’t necessarily teach on fasting and meditation on a Wednesday evening. Instead, I would begin by talking about prayer and spending time in God’s Word.

But the real question is what type of spiritual rhythms should we actually teach our students? I have found in my experience most students are not aware of rhythms outside of prayer and devotions of some sort. This may be a broader narrative about what is actually being taught within our churches and how that is reflected in families, but that is another conversation for another day. I think for many youth programs it would be helpful to start with more entry-level spiritual rhythms and then scale upward as you see your students growing and maturing in their walks with Jesus. With that said, here are some spiritual rhythms I believe we should be teaching our students.

Prayer: I believe it is important to teach our students about both personal and corporate prayer. You can show them different postures of prayer, different prayers styles (like thanksgiving, confession, supplication, lamenting, etc.), different communication styles, silence in prayer, journaling, and more.

Scripture reading, meditation, and memorization: Helping your students not just know how to read Scripture but also to meditate on it and memorize it will help them deepen their relationship with Jesus and give them greater opportunities to navigate the difficulties of this world. Take time to teach how to read Scripture and also how to study it. Utilize different strategies and resources to help students learn in different ways. Highlight different tools for memorization and meditation so student don’t just read but also apply the Word of God by allowing it to permeate their lives.

Fasting: This isn’t something that Protestant churches often talk about, but it is something every Christian should engage. Fasting is something that our current culture isn’t acclimated to because we don’t often have to do without for any reason. But training our students about what fasting is, why we do it, and the results of it will help them to not only grow as followers of Jesus but also as young adults.

Communion: There have been many times where I’ve preached and handled officiating communion in our church services. One of the things I love to do is explain what communion is and then encourage parents to walk their children and students through it. It’s a beautiful opportunity for parents to lead their families and also for students to see how and why we share in this moment with each other. This can also be accomplished in student ministry gatherings where you can go deeper into the remembrance, repentance, and restoration (there’s alliteration for ya!) that comes from this sacred moment.

Giving and service: I think talking about finances is often a difficult conversations for churches overall. Asking for money never feels great. But if we frame it from the perspective of giving and service it allows us to focus not just on the monetary piece but the heart motivation. Students may not be able to give monetarily but can give of their gifts, time, and talents. So look to explain why we give and serve, how we can give and serve, and what that accomplishes for the person and the body.

Journaling: I’ll be honest, I am really bad at journaling. I can write messages, blog posts, devotional guides, and emails, but for some reason journaling escapes me. Elise is fantastic at journaling and has a way of truly putting her heart onto paper. When we journal as a spiritual rhythm it helps us share our hearts, put our thoughts about our faith journey to paper, and see how we have progressed in our relationship with Jesus as one of His disciples.

Worship: Worship is one of those things we believe everyone who becomes a Christian knows how to do. For some reason we assume that everyone knows what worship is and we don’t often teach about. But if we don’t teach our students how to worship, they will never understand it nor why it matters. Take time to make sure your students know worship extends beyond just music and singing. Highlight that different worship styles exist. Help students find their way to worship and show them how to make it a part of their everyday lives.

Sabbath: I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you until recently I really struggled in this area. I didn’t know how to intentionally pause and take time to spiritually refresh. I would assert the majority of our culture doesn’t know how to do this well either. We are so busy and so overwhelmed with everything that exists at our fingertips that we don’t usually find space to just refresh and be in the presence of Jesus. So create the opportunity for your students to experience these moments. Train them in what sabbath is and why it is necessary. Show them how it can be a full day, a week, a season, or even just a few hours carved out of a day. Help them to see what it does for their heart and soul, and how it draws them closer to Jesus as they are encouraged and refreshed.

Community and fellowship: I believe community and fellowship are spiritual rhythms that at times can happen naturally. But even as they occur naturally, they can become tribalistic and alienating to outsiders. Part of training our students in this rhythm is helping them see the beauty within the body of Christ that comes from diversity and differing opinions. When we highlight that the kingdom of heaven is made up of believers from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities, theological positions, and political views, it will help students understand the beauty of diversity and how they can have healthy, God-honoring relationships with believers who are different from them. This will also help our students understand how important fellowship and community is for the church as a whole and prayerfully help them stay connected with a local community of believers.

6 Quick Tips for Speaking Prep

Part of being a student pastor, or even a volunteer leader, is speaking. Whether to your own youth group, preaching in a service, or at camps or retreats, we will all be faced with this part of the job at some point. Speaking in and of itself can be intimidating and taxing, but if we aren’t preparing well, that intimidation can become overwhelming. So what are some ways to prepare well when we do speak?

1. Study and know your material.

This is something we should always be doing when it comes to presenting God’s Word. We should spend time in the Bible, explore commentaries, utilize additional materials (libraries, topical books, early church writers, theologians, and wiser church leaders), and our own knowledge and interpretation to know what the text is saying and how to make it translatable and applicable to our audience.

2. Pray…a lot.

The need for prayer cannot be overstated. Whenever we are getting ready to take the stage and present the Word of God to an audience, we need to remember that it isn’t of our own power or prowess, but it is the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. He allows us to use the gifts we have been given to reach others. So tapping into the power of the Spirit and relying upon Him to sustain and guide us, as well as providing the words we need, will allow us to be more effective when communicating and presenting the Gospel.

3. Seek feedback and insight.

Feedback and insight are things I haven’t always had or pursued, but now that I do have them, I see how vital they are. Seek out input and critiques from people you know and respect, and allow them to help shape you and the messages you give. If you don’t have this option available at your workplace, consider reaching out to local peers, ministry connections, college professors, or even coaches (check out Slingshot Group for some great options) to help you grow and mature in your gifts and skill set.

4. Practice.

Practicing is something that I do regardless of the audience or where I am speaking. I practice at least twice, and if possible, practice in the location where I will be speaking. Practicing should include working on your speech and word usage, mannerisms, movement, crowd engagement, and even eye contact. The more you practice, the more familiar you will be with your message, your space, and your audience, which will help you best present the message that God has given to you.

5. Know your audience and venue.

This is something that you can’t always do (i.e. you’re guest preaching in a new environment) but when you can, it is hugely beneficial as it allows you to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways. When you know the community you’re speaking to it enables you to establish relationship and rapport which will give you permission to engage in deeper and more intentional communication. Also, when you are familiar with your venue you can take advantage of the stage, seating, lighting, atmosphere, and relatability with your people.

6. Be mindful of what you eat and drink day-of.

One of the things I learned early on from friends who are singers is there are certain food and drink items that can adversely affect your vocal cords. Dairy, sugars, and to some degree caffeine, can all have negative affects on your voice such as dry mouth, lack of vocal range, and lack of inflection. I love coffee and drink it almost every morning. But if I am speaking that day, I don’t add sugar or any creamer, and I try to be done with the coffee at least two hours before I speak. Also, make sure to drink lots of water in preparation for when you speak. The more water your mouth and throat have, the better your range and vocal abilities will be.

What are some things you do to prepare for speaking?

Speaking Tips for New Youth Pastors

Is this your first ministry position? Are you feeling your pulse quicken and heart beat faster as you stand before your students? Is this your first time speaking to a group that is now yours to shepherd and lead?

We have all been, or will be, in that position at some point. Whether it’s your very first ministry position or your first time speaking in front of a new youth group or audience, speaking can be difficult. We can all feel rushed, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, terrified, and more. But when you are stepping in front of your group for the first time (or first few), it can be terrifying and that can lead us into some patterns that aren’t beneficial.

We can tend to speak too long our first few times and if left unchecked it becomes a habit we don’t know how to break. When we feel uncomfortable we can make jokes or poke fun at people we shouldn’t. When we think students are disengaging or being disruptive we can snap and get upset. Not having a plan in place and thinking through how communicate and speak well will lead us into a place that is very difficult out of which to rise. Today I want to offer you some tips on how to speak well to your group, especially if you’re a new youth pastor or in a new role.

Keep it short.

Sometimes when we start off with a new group we can tend to be a little too talkative. This doesn’t come from a bad place but from a desire to be clear, to make sure everything is communicated, and to build relational equity. But talking for too long actually detracts from all of those points.

Instead, look to keep your lessons to 15 minutes or less. You can always build them up to longer lessons as you build rapport and relationships within your ministry. A good metric to assess the timing of your lesson is to ask yourself if it could be broken into two shorter lessons. If it can be, it is most likely best to do so.

Know your group.

The more you know your group, the better prepared you will be to communicate with them. You may be wondering how to do this, especially if you are in week one of your new position. A few easy ways to build relationships early include getting to church and youth group early to meet people, initiating conversations rather than waiting for them to happen, playing games with your students, and connecting with your leaders before gatherings. If you put these aspects into place, you will begin to know more about your group, which will allow you to connect and engage with them at a deeper level.

Know your material.

This is something that is hugely important. I know most, if not all, of us would say we strive to know our material and what we are sharing. But how comfortable are you when something or someone throws you off your game? In a new setting you never know what could happen: a student could interrupt, your setting could be unusual and distracting, or someone could try to distract you. In those moments do you feel comfortable enough to disengage from teaching to engage the moment and then reengage with the teaching? Knowing your material means you are comfortable and able to audible when needed, and that you can handle whatever comes your way.

Slow down.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the northeast or if it just comes natural, but regardless of the reason I tend to be a fast talker. But when I talk fast, things can get lost or misunderstood. When people start in a new pastoral position the propensity can be to talk faster in an attempt to cram as much material as possible into each lesson. But this is not an ideal way to communicate. Instead slow down, be purposeful and intentional, and make sure to clearly articulate your points. Doing this will not only ensure that what is shared is heard but also retained and prayerfully applied.

Engage with your group.

This is a key point and one that I think many of us can struggle with. Whenever we stand before a group we have our expectations about how the group should function and how they should engage, respond, and focus on what we are saying. But have you noticed how our expectations and realities don’t always go hand-in-hand? You may want the group to be quiet and hyper-focused on what you are saying, but they may want to ask questions and interrupt. How do you handle that? Do you allow your frustration or unmet expectations to show?

Let me encourage you to engage with your group during your speaking time. Don’t get frustrated but instead respond well. When they make a joke, laugh if appropriate. If they ask a question, engage it. If they don’t seem like they are paying attention, consider alternatives to calling it out (pause and highlight the lesson’s importance, pause and pray to center hearts, consider that it may be best to dialogue in smaller groups, etc.). Engaging with your group shows them that you see and value them, and that this isn’t meant to be a top down, authoritative lecture but instead a discipleship pathway.

Control your emotions.

This is a good thing to do in any setting, but especially in front of students. Students are highly intelligent and they can easily assess how people are feeling based upon body language, interactions and conversations, ticks you may have (eye rolls, sighs, facial expressions, looking at the clock, etc.), or a failure to look at them as you speak. All of these highlight our internal emotions and students are acutely aware of them.

So as you engage with and speak to your students, make sure you are controlling your emotions. Don’t allow your frustrations to boil over into an outburst. Don’t get angry at your students for not paying attention. Don’t become passive aggressive in your comments. Instead pray before, during, and after you speak for a gracious heart and a joyful spirit. Be vigilant in practicing the Fruit of the Spirit. Practice smiling before you speak. Studies actually show that smiling releases endorphins that help you feel happy and relaxed. So take five to ten seconds before you speak to pray and smile.

Have fun.

This is one aspect I always try to remember. Yes, this is a career. Yes, we are expositing God’s Word. Yes, we are seeking to disciple students and help them on the path of living for Jesus. But as we do that, I believe we can also have fun. I truly believe that Jesus had fun and enjoyed life with His followers, and that we are to do the same. So when you are speaking, smile, tell a joke or funny story, be personal, and laugh when things don’t always go according to plan. The more fun you have while you are speaking the more value and passion you will have for the calling God has given you.

5 Quick Tips on How to Connect With Your Audience

Let’s face it: speaking can be challenging and connecting with your audience can be equally challenging if not more so. Add in students, and then the challenge at times can feel overwhelming. I have gotten to know many amazing pastors and speakers serving in a variety of capacities around the country who are doing amazing jobs at sharing the Gospel but also connecting with their audience. These two aspects don’t always work together seamlessly, but when they do there is immense opportunity to reach people. The question before us today is this: how do I actually connect with my audience while I am sharing Biblical truth?

I don’t know if you have ever had one of these experiences before:

  • Someone falls asleep while you are teaching or preaching.
  • A student says, “Hey, I know you try, but you’re just boring.”
  • People seem to tune out while you are talking and start playing on their phones.
  • Someone says, “Your messages are great but I don’t understand how they relate to my life.”

I know I have had very similar conversations with people throughout my time in ministry. I’ll be honest with you and tell you I was not a great speaker before I went to school for ministry, and my first few years in ministry my sermons and teachings were largely informative and expository and did little to connect with my people. Personal connection and the ability to relate to your people is highly important because it makes what you are teaching real and applicable to their lives.

I would assert that being a great orator and expositor isn’t the only thing that makes you a great minister. What truly makes a great minister is one who knows their people, can shepherd well, points people to Jesus, and helps them draw practical application to their own lives from Scripture. But how do you do this well as you are speaking? Much of this sounds like things you would do in a smaller setting or one-on-one moments. I think these opportunities present themselves as we speak, but in order to embrace them we must apply various tools at our disposal. Today, I want to provide you with five quick tools that will help you better connect with your people.

1. Make eye contact.

Depending on the size of the group you are speaking to this may sound easy or it may sound really difficult. It also may be really challenging for you personally if this is something you don’t find yourself doing in personal conversations. But when you look someone in the eyes during a conversation you are literally helping them to understand that you see them. You have made what you are talking about personal and you are allowing your people to know that you care about them and that what you are sharing has meaning and value for their lives.

If you still struggle with this or if you are in a larger church or youth group setting, allow me to offer you a quick tip on how to do this. Look at peoples’ foreheads or slightly above them. When I preach in our sanctuary, it is very hard for me to look at people in their eyes because there are more people present than in our youth group and the stage lights can be blinding. But by looking slightly over their foreheads, it allows for me to connect with more people and helps them to know they are seen. There have been countless moments when I have utilized this trick and people have come up and said, “Nick, it was like you were looking right at me!” Using this tip will help you better connect and know you people in ways you may never have before.

2. Tell stories.

I love to tell stories. In fact, if you were to ask anyone who knows me they would tell you that even to simple questions I use a story to answer. Now sometimes that isn’t helpful, but when you are speaking, stories bring the audience in and they also humanize the speaker. Often people will look at a pastor or speaker in a revered type of way, but what people truly want is someone who understands and can relate to them.

So when you are speaking use stories but also make sure to utilize personal stories. This resource will allow for you to connect in deeper ways with your audience and it also will help them to focus and listen more because they want to know what you will say next. I think this is a resource that Jesus used often (i.e. parables) but in some ways this resource has fallen by the wayside in some church cultures. When Jesus used parables it brought people in and helped to explain the point(s) He was making, and when you use stories you do the same thing. So leverage stories, both personal and general, to bring people in and emphasize your points.

3. Be authentic.

Authenticity is something people crave because it means they can understand, relate, and be a part of your life and vision. When you are real, vulnerable, and authentic people will gravitate toward you and want to share in what you are teaching. So utilize personal stories, be honest about what you are learning, talk about personal applications, show emotion, and be transparent. These traits will help people see that what you are teaching is real and applicable because they see you implementing and wrestling with it. Authenticity breeds relatability and creates a culture where people desire to journey with you.

4. Utilize inflection.

It is often easy to speak in a monotone style or to simply speak in one manner. But good speakers who want to reach their people will utilize inflection when they speak. It isn’t about raising your voice or yelling, but about utilizing the gift that God has given you to draw people in and understand the Word of God. There is much power in how we utilize our voices because a whisper or softly spoken word communicates differently than a loud or passionate voice. So consider where and how to use inflection in your speaking, and practice how to use your voice and understand the skillset God has given you.

5. Know your material and practice.

I personally think one of the best things you can do to connect with your audience is know your material well enough that you do not need to read off of a manuscript. I was trained very classically and taught to memorize and internalize my message, and while I know this isn’t easy for many people, I do believe that at least knowing your main points and application will allow you to connect better with your audience. The reason it allows you to connect is because your attention, vision, and focus is on the audience rather than focusing on reading the manuscript and making sure you get it exactly as it is written.

The only way to achieve this is by constant practice. Whether I am speaking to students, sharing as a speaker at a retreat, or preaching at a church, I make sure to practice multiple times beforehand because it helps me to be comfortable with the message, the text, and when possible, the stage or environment. The more you practice and attempt to memorize key points, application, or the entirety of your message, the better you will become at not having to rely upon notes, and be able to connect at a deeper level with your audience.

What have you found to be the most effective way to connect with your audience?

Quick Tips for Preaching in “Big Church”

For many youth workers the time to preach in “big church” is fast approaching as the holidays begin. Whether you are asked to preach because your senior pastor is on vacation or because you are part of the regular rotation, preaching is something we should revere and treat with respect. For our post this week, I want to share with you a few quick tips on how to preach well in church (and really anywhere) and how to allow yourself to be most effectively used by God to reach His people.

Be yourself.

Authenticity is key when you are preaching. Don’t try to be something you aren’t or to imitate someone else. Be the person God designed you to be and ask Him to work through you. God has specifically designed and equipped you to communicate His Word, so be yourself and allow God to utilize your gifts. Don’t try to be someone else, be who God made you and allow that to be the person who stands in the pulpit.

Know your material and practice.

This is something we should be doing regardless of where we are preaching or teaching. Before you preach make that you have studied your material so you present it well. Coupled with knowing your material is practicing. We all know how easy it is to lose your place or get distracted. Knowing your material and practicing helps to ensure that happens less and that you are able to recover easier.

Slow down and be intentional.

This is something I have been practicing for a long time. I’m a fast-paced talker, and often I feel pressured to get all of my material out in a set amount of time. Or maybe you just talk fast because that is how you teach students. When you are preaching, slowing down and showing intentionality will connect you more to your audience. This will also help you be more succinct and clear in your communication. Practicing this will help you grow as a preacher and allow you to communicate in a clearer and more direct manner

Treat the pulpit with respect.

This is something I don’t think we always are aware of, but as we stand in the pulpit (and honestly any time we teach), we must be aware of the privilege and weight that comes with teaching and preaching God’s Word. Too often the pulpit and office of authority as a minister of the Gospel is treated cavalierly, and we don’t afford it the respect it is due. The Bible tells us that those who preach God’s Word are held to a higher accountability because they are presenting the Word of God to His people and what they say has eternal ramifications. So when you enter the pulpit to preach, hold it in respect knowing that God has called you to present His Word to His people, and you have the honor and privilege of doing so.

Speak to all generations.

Often when we are afforded the opportunity to preach, people expect the youth pastor to speak like and speak to the young people. But we are in a unique place to speak to all generations because student ministry is truly about reaching multiple generations. There are students, parents, volunteers, and others that cross multiple generations which gives you an opportunity to reach all those generations when you preach. Don’t talk to just one or two generations or groups, but instead try to make your message applicable to all.

Don’t look to be inflammatory just because you can.

I need to remind myself of this. I get to preach fairly regularly at my church and have had the privilege of speaking on quite a few controversial topics and passages. I have often wanted to say things because I have felt passionate or wanted to push people to think critically by challenging their norms and perceptions. But to simply say something to be provocative is not the purpose for those who are preaching. Our purpose in preaching is to exposit God’s Word and help people grow in spiritual formation through God’s transformation. The Gospel is enough to challenge people, so let it do so. Look to communicate the Word of God and to challenge your people, but you do not need to make provocative or inflammatory statements in order to do so.

Remember that the focus should be on God, not you.

I will be the first to say that I know pride is a struggle within my own heart. I love when people say they like my preaching or that they have missed seeing me in the pulpit. But in the same way that positive comments can affirm me, negative ones can break me. The root issue in those moments is the pride within my heart because I have made it about me.

What needs to be the focus is simple: did God’s Word get shared, did you communicate it clearly and accurately, and was God glorified by what you shared? If we can answer yes to all three of those questions, we know that we have done what God has asked of us, and it shifts the focus away from us to where it should be–on God and God alone. When you stand in the pulpit or before a group, remember it isn’t your platform, but God’s. It isn’t about you creating brand recognition, but about pointing people to the King of Kings. It isn’t about the shoes you wear, but about the eternality of peoples’ souls that are at stake.

What are you most excited to be preaching about next? How do you utilize the opportunity to preach to best reach the people you are speaking to?

Speaking on + Equipping Students for Difficult Topics

Last week I was invited to share on the topic of justice with our young adult group at church. This is an issue that is near to my heart, and also one that can feel extremely intimidating. Speaking on topics that are challenging and culturally-charged usually isn’t our first choice. But if we are willing to step into these difficult discussions, we can equip our students with a godly perspective as they encounter them in their every-day lives.

Today I want to share some tips for speaking on and equipping students for topics like justice, with the hope of encouraging you to not shy away from challenging subject matter. It can be tempting to gravitate toward easy topics and tried-and-true lessons, but our goal should be to speak to our students where they are, approaching topics and issues they are encountering every day. May we equip our students to live Christ-like lives in all places where they find themselves, including and especially our current cultural moment.

Always seek Scripture first.

I challenge students to take their questions and concerns to Scripture first. How does the Bible address the issues we encounter? How does God speak about the things we are dealing with in the twenty-first century? What can I learn about God’s heart from His word? As student leaders, we shouldn’t only model this in our lessons, we should encourage students to do their own research and study, and not just take our word for it.

Topics that are culturally relevant or popular can be easy to research online, through news stories, and from podcasts. There is no end to the number of voices speaking into things like justice, and you can find many different perspectives on any given topic. That is why it is essential to ground our perspective in Scripture. As we listen to the voices around us, how to they measure up to the truth of the Bible? Do they reflect God’s heart for the world, the oppressed, and the believer? And are we regularly seeking God’s word on our own to discern His voice and truth as we interact with other voices?

I encourage students to compare what I say, and what they hear from others, to what they find in the Bible. I also challenge them to learn what God says about the issues they are encountering in their lives. Sometimes that means providing resources like study Bibles, study guides, or Scripture references. Other times it may mean doing a deep-dive study of a topic or book of the Bible with our students. Whatever it takes, make sure your students are equipped to study God’s word and put it into practice in their lives.

Help cast a Christ-like vision.

As we study Scripture, the goal isn’t just to acquire head knowledge or the ability to regurgitate Bible verses. It is to know Christ, to have an understanding of who He is, how He lived, and how He would have us live. Scripture gives us a vision for how we can walk in Christ-likeness, and we need that vision desperately if we are going to step into our calling as believers.

Those of us who are student leaders have a responsibility to aid in casting this vision. We have a responsibility to lead by example for the generations that will follow, and to help show them who we are following. Without this vision, we can construct a self-made vision for our lives and the world, one that can easily be swayed by outside voices who have no regard for God.

We find ourselves in a time where the weight of political opinions and personal preferences hold obvious weight in the church. Allegiances are placed in parties, people, and places that are not God, nor His word. The truth is this is a dangerous place to be because it means separating who we are and how we live from God and what He wants for us. When we separate ourselves and our responses to the world from God, we easily lose sight of the life we have been called to live as followers of Christ.

If we want to live powerfully for Christ, we cannot misalign our priorities. We need a vision for Him that captures our hearts and lives, and creates a lens through which we view everything else. Help your students form a Christ-centered vision of themselves, the church, and the world. From this point they will be most prepared to respond to the issues they encounter, and to live in the world as beacons of Christ’s light.

Humanize issues by making them personal.

Whenever I speak about justice, I have to share my personal connection to the issue. I have spent the last seven years fighting the specific issue of human trafficking, in large part because of the assault I experienced in high school. When I first learned about human trafficking, all I could picture were young people who were like me. They needed someone to speak up for them and fight for justice, just like I needed when I was a teenager. This made the issue personal for me.

As time as gone on, the issue continues to remain personal, not just from my experience, but also by listening to the stories of others who are willing to share. Each time we hear someone’s story, it transforms an issue from a headline, statistic, or hashtag, into a living, breathing human being. We can help students make these connections and move beyond disconnected observation to connection and care.

Of course any time we’re sharing stories on difficult topics, we have to use discretion and caution with what we share. It’s important to make sure stories are not overly graphic, and to provide trigger warnings. Whenever I talk about what happened to me, I am never explicit in what I share. I am always willing to share more with people who ask, but when speaking to a group, I use general terms and focus more on the help I received and what I learned than what was done to me.

Look for simple ways to help students make human connections to issues. Maybe it will involve asking someone to share, or perhaps experiencing another way of life on a mission or service trip. Help your students broaden their horizons and care about issues by making personal connections.

Help students move to action.

Humanizing issues can cause us to feel deeply about them. Sometimes feeling deeply can paralyze us because the issues feel too insurmountable. Students might wonder what they could ever do to tackle issues that are beyond all of us. This is where you can help students move to action.

This can be as simple as providing suggestions of ways students can help. Things as simple as gathering food for a pantry, serving at a homeless shelter, donating clothes or toys to a holiday drive, finding ways to shop ethically and fair trade, or financially supporting a child in another country. There are many ways students can fight injustice right where they are, sometimes they just need a few ideas.

Something else you can help your students do is discover their gifts, and how they can be used to combat an issue. Is your student a natural speaker, or an artist, a poet, or always looking for ways to help out with projects? Tap into the talents and gifts your students have been given and see the ways that serving others will become life-giving. Sometimes all it takes for a student to step up is having an adult speak their talents into their life.

Do what you can to equip your students, spiritually, mentally, and practically. The Christian faith cannot be something we just do in our minds, on Sundays and youth group nights. It needs to be holistic, our students want it to be holistic. We have a unique opportunity and responsibility to help our students step into a holistic Christian faith that speaks to every issue they will ever encounter. Will you help your students do this?

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 3]

Over the past two weeks we have been talking about sex and relationships and how to have godly conversations about these topics with your students. We have looked at some plenary processes and conversations that need to happen and at how to approach the actual conversations with your students.

This week our desire is to provide some passages of Scripture to utilize in your teachings. Not all of these passages have to do with sex per se. Some will focus on relationships, others on intimacy, and others on how to actually care for one another.

Genesis 2:4-25

It is important when talking about relationships and intimacy to start at the beginning of God’s Word to help us understand why we desire these things. This passage of Scripture highlights how humankind is created in God’s image and because of that we desire relationships and intimacy. God is a relational God who truly desires intimacy with His people. God created Adam and Eve to have an intentional and personal relationship with them, and for their relationship with one another to reflect God’s relationship with them. This passage helps us to understand that from the beginning we were designed to be in relationships with one another and that these relationships should represent the intimate relationship we have with God.

Hebrews 13:4

In this passage the author of Hebrews is giving concluding exhortations to their readers, and it is within these challenges that they briefly speak about marriage and sex. But what they say is exceptionally important as we engage this conversation with our students. The author states, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” We may simply read this and give a rousing amen to the passage, but let’s pause and reflect on what is being said.

First, we are to honor marriage. Why? Because marriage is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. When we enter into marriage we are engaging in a union that God uses to define His relationship with the church. Our marriages are to be a reflection of God’s love to the world.

We are then challenged to keep the marriage bed pure. I don’t think the author simply placed that phrase here because it sounded good or seemed logical. Instead, I believe the author knew that humankind’s propensity would be to do anything but honor the marriage bed. The author knows we are broken and prone to wander even from the one that God has designed us for. So marriage and sex are to be held in honor both toward God and our partner. We are not to stray or wander from it because to do so would be to dishonor and harm our spouse and God. We are sinning and grieving not only a person but our Creator who has designed us for these relationships.

1 Corinthians 13

This is a passage that often gets a lot of criticism and critique in Christian circles. Not necessarily because of what it says, but because of how it has been taught and used as leverage in relationships. I have heard people say that this passage teaches us to be quiet and simply take what comes our way, I have witnessed people use this passage to advocate staying in abusive relationships, and still others I have heard use this passage to rationalize away their sins and promiscuity. But a true reflection on this passage highlights that love is not about dismissing sin or condoning abuse, but instead is about honoring and reflecting Christ in our relationships.

We are told in 1 John 4:16 that God is love. Therefore, when we read Paul’s challenge to love in 1 Corinthians 13, we understand that we are being called to model Christ in our relationships. God doesn’t call us to a passive relationship with others but instead into a passionate and vibrant relationship that mirrors Christ to one another. Love isn’t something that is fleeting or something we fall into and out of like a pothole on a highway, but instead is a lifelong commitment to honor and pursue one another as Christ does for each of us. It is about edifying, exhorting, challenging, correcting, celebrating, and honoring one another as God does the same for us.

This is also a great passage to talk about how our relationships should look not only with our spouse but with other people in our lives. It should help us understand how we should speak to and about one another. It should cause us to think through and talk about consent and honoring one another. It gives us time and space to think about how we are treating others and if we are reflecting Christ in our actions, thoughts, and words.

Matthew 5:27-30

When it comes to lust and purity, we must understand that we are not simply talking about behavior modification. We can try to change habits and behaviors all day long, but if we don’t focus on the heart then we will always stumble and falter. Instead of simply telling people to dress modestly, bounce their eyes, install pornography blockers on devices, or to not lust after one another, we should be looking at our hearts and helping others to grow and mature in Christ. This will then work itself out into our actions and thoughts.

None of those ideas are necessarily wrong or bad, but they are only about behavior and we should focus on the heart first then the behaviors. In this passage, Jesus talks about how simply looking at someone with lust is adultery. It isn’t the physical action of sleeping with someone but the action and thoughts of the heart that lead us to adultery. He is telling us to handle the internal issue and then work on the external. So as you teach this with your students, focus more on the heart than the “external fixers.” Working on what is wrong with the heart will allow for greater success in correcting the behavior than simply focusing on the behavior alone.

Song of Solomon 7:6-12

Sex is not a bad thing. In fact, throughout Scripture we see that sex is actually meant to be enjoyed and that it is a good thing. We have an entire portion of the Bible in Song of Solomon that is literally a book on relationships and sex. But so often churches present sex as something that isn’t enjoyable or that is taboo. What we need to help our students understand is that sex is to be enjoyed and that it is something we should look forward to. That doesn’t mean we should simply rush out and have sex with whomever we please whenever we want. But we should know that God has designed us as sexual beings who can enjoy sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage.

These passages are not all-encompassing nor are they the only passages we should use. These passages represent a way to begin the conversation and walk with our students through a biblical understanding of relationships and sex. Our prayer for you and your students is that you don’t shy away from the hard conversations, but rather meet them head on and present a biblical response and understanding to help navigate them. Know that these past three posts are intended to help you prepare and engage these conversations, and we are here to walk with you and process through how to start or continue the conversations. Thank you for stepping into the hard moments and being willing to talk to your students about how the Gospel both informs and guides us in understanding sex and relationships.