Are You Asking the Right Questions?

In my first job after college I was a staff writer at a small newspaper. I had to be more aggressive than was normal for me, which at times was extremely uncomfortable. I had to ask a lot of questions and in the beginning it was a struggle to know what to ask, and to get people to answer. Many interactions felt like nails on a chalkboard.

Over time and through the struggle, I began to enjoy asking questions, being inquisitive, and investigating different situations. It began to spill unintentionally into my personal life, and even now, Nick says I’m good at figuring things out, which makes it hard to surprise me. And that is usually due to asking a multitude of questions.

Asking questions has also turned me into a better listener than I ever was before. It’s helped me train my ears to lead my mind in digging deeper, paying attention to subtleties, and at times picking up on things that could be easily overlooked. I’ve learned firsthand what asking good, thoughtful questions, and listening carefully to answers can accomplish. It’s something that isn’t essential only to journalism, but student ministry as well.

Asking the right questions will help you be a better leader for your students as it will allow you to uncover things that otherwise remain hidden. It will also help your students feel cared for, heard, and understood. But how do you ask the right questions? Keep reading for some of my suggestions born out of over a decade of question-asking.

DON’T ask questions that require only a “yes” or “no” answer.

Unless you have a great follow-up question, that is. But even then, I recommend avoiding yes/no questions all together, especially if your intent is to uncover more about how your students are thinking and feeling. They still may give you a one-word answer, but nothing serves up a conversation-ender better than asking something that only requires a shake of the head or “yeah.” What you want is to get students talking.

Think through other ways to ask the question that will require students to respond with a sentence or two at the least, but could open the door for more. For example, instead of asking a student if they like going to school, ask how they feel about their classes and extracurricular activities. Or instead of making a statement and asking students if they agree, ask them what they think about the statement, or if they would change it. It may be a bit of an adjustment at first, but the more time you spend on it, the easier it will become to ask questions that lead your students to share more.

DO ask follow-up questions that show you are listening.

This is a big one for uncovering more information, getting to know your students, or leading them into self-guided discussion. (More on self-guided discussion here.) In order to keep the conversation going and encourage your students to share more, you must listen actively, purposefully, and intently. Personally, nothing makes me want to stop talking more than the realization that someone isn’t listening. Unfortunately, in my experience this happens more with pastors and church leaders than any other group. It also happens when people are distracted by their phones, too busy worrying about something else, or listening only enough to know when it’s their turn to take over the conversation.

If you struggle with listening, start intentionally practicing it with a friend, co-worker, or spouse. Ask them to tell you a story from their childhood or their day. Watch their face for different expressions, their hand gestures, envision the story as though you are there with them, and pay attention to the details. Don’t allow your mind to wander, maintain eye contact, don’t interrupt, and actively think about what you are hearing. When they have finished speaking, choose a few things that stood out to you and ask follow-up questions about them. You may want to focus on the speaker’s feelings about the event, how it impacted their life, or what they wish had happened differently.

If you want to make others in your life feel valued, intentional listening is a great place to start. It will also help you get to know your students on a level that moves beyond short, surface-y conversations. You have the power to do these things in how you listen and the questions you ask as a result.

DON’T feel the need to answer every question.

It drives me crazy when a youth leader asks a question during small group time and immediately begins answering it themselves. You may have the right answer, and it might be really great, but don’t be afraid of a little silence from your group. Sometimes people need time to think through a coherent answer before speaking. If students aren’t answering, rephrase the question before answering it yourself.

During discussions, students may ask questions of you as well. Don’t be afraid to use a question as a response in these situations, especially with the intent of guiding students to uncovering answers or conclusions for themselves. We have a unique opportunity to help our students think deeply about their faith, and many times that involves personal wrestling with Scripture, our beliefs, and our culture. Rather than simply providing answers, help students build the skills they need to think carefully and critically, and arrive at their own conclusions.

Depending on the type of question a student asks, the best response may be a question in order for you to uncover their motives or heart behind what they are asking. Jesus did this frequently, and as He already knew people’s hearts, I think His question-responses were to help them think about their motives. Whether your students are trying to test you, be antagonistic, or are genuinely curious, you can use questions to help guide the discussion and uncover intent. And if you don’t know an answer, be honest and tell them, but then work on discovering the answer to share later.

DO ask questions that uncover feelings and emotions.

If you want to understand your students, get to the heart of the matter, and help them feel known, look to discover their feelings and emotions. Asking students how they feel about the things going on in their life will help you connect with the heart behind their behavior. This can help you begin to uncover why your students may be acting or speaking in a particular manner. Things may look a certain way at first glance, but as you learn more, you may begin to see the whole picture. Don’t assume that you know who a student is or is not; give them the benefit of the doubt, and make space for them to open up.

Every human being is amazingly complex, and each of us struggle with different things. Students may be dealing with internal struggles like anxiety or a poor self image, or they may be experiencing hurt and abuse from family or friends. Until you take the time to ask questions and carefully listen to answers, you will never get beyond the surface. Dig into how your students are feeling, what is happening in their lives, and be a safe space for them to share and be loved. Help them see that they are unique, interesting, and needed.

DON’T force it.

As with anything, use moderation when asking questions. If students aren’t responding, or if they refuse to share much, don’t keep asking more questions. Give them space and time. They may need to get used to you and determine whether you are a safe person or not. Pestering them with a barrage of questions may cause them to retreat further. So work to be perceptive as you ask questions, and start slow.

If you have a student who isn’t particularly communicative, start by asking them one basic question each time you see them, like “how was your day?” Show them that you are consistently interested and available. If their answers begin to get longer and more personal, try asking a few more to see if they are willing to share. Build trust by remembering the things they share, keeping confidences, and honoring their autonomy. Don’t be afraid to say, “Can I ask this?” before sharing your question. If they say no, respect their decision and don’t pry.

DO remain fully present.

This is part of listening well, but in our distracted day and age, it deserves a second mention. When you are interacting with your students, remain fully present with them. This is especially important if you are the “main man/woman” (i.e., the lead youth pastor, church pastor, etc.). It can be easy as the up-front leader to be in a hurry the whole time you’re at youth group, or to act like whoever you are is more important than who they are. Take a step back and remember that you are there for the students, not yourself, not your platform, and not your schedule, as important as it may be to stay on time.

To build equity into your interactions with your students, you must be dialed into them. This doesn’t mean you neglect everything or everyone else, but you give them an allotment of undistracted time in which you stop, make eye contact, listen intently, and ask a question or two. If you need to move on, don’t look at your phone or watch. Instead, explain why/what you have to do, and if possible, invite them to join you so you can continue talking. Remember that your students are important and valuable, and they need to perceive that from you. There are enough people in the world who blow off our students, let’s not be those people.

A few questions you can use:

  • What’s one good thing that happened this week and what’s one bad thing that happened?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • Why do you think that is/why do you think that’s true?
  • How would you change that?
  • What do you want to do when you feel that way?
  • Who do you listen to the most/who influences you?
  • How can I help?

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in:

New Year, New You

Happy new year! For many of us the start of the new year involves changes of some kind as we seek to be healthier. I know for Elise and I, we have started the new year by engaging with the Whole30 program. This is a program we have done in the past and after the last few years we knew we needed a reset and an opportunity to get healthy again.

But dietary or healthy eating is only a singular approach to our holistic lives. And I would assert that as we approach this new year we need to be thinking about our entire health and well-being. Being purveyors of the Gospel can be a heavy weight at times. Trying to balance the teaching and expediting of God’s Word, caring for and ministering to the people under our care, trying to balance commitments and priorities, dealing with criticism, and simply seeking to accomplish daily tasks at work and home can feel overwhelming and at times unbearable. The reality is that these things and many others can be weighty and hard to deal with which will lead to unhealthy habits and our willingness to let healthy habits fall to the side.

So how can we as ministers of the Gospel make sure we are holistically healthy? I think it begins by looking at five key areas in our lives that should be healthy and allowing for those areas to be worked out in other areas of our lives. I hope to look at these areas and prayerfully help you think through what a healthy life looks like for you.

Mental.

Mental health is important, and with the way the last couple of years have been, your mental health is probably feeling pretty taxed and depleted. I know for me there have been times this last year where I’ve felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and mentally done. But it is highly important for us to take care of our mental health. If we allow our thoughts to wander or to increase doubt or frustrations, we will find ourselves ready to throw in the towel.

So what should our response be? I think we should find someone to talk with. Whether a trusted friend, a ministry partner, a mentor, or your spouse, having someone to talk to and process with will do wonders for your mental health. I would also encourage everyone to find a counselor to talk with. Counselors have a way of getting us to open up, think critically, identify issues that should be dealt with, and come up with action steps. The stigma attached to mental health needs to be rolled back, because without a healthy frame of mind, we will be frustrated and unable to fully give to the ministry God has called us to.

Physical.

Let’s be honest: serving in ministry isn’t exactly the best career path for our physical health, especially if you serve in student ministry. The candy, pizza, soda, energy drinks, constant snacking, and eating like a student will eventually catch up to you. I will be thirty-six this year, and I can attest to that reality. I don’t lose weight how I used to, and the snacks just seem to hang around…the midsection that is. That is part of the reason I am doing the Whole30 because I want to rebuild a healthy relationship with food and to cleanse from all the garbage I have been eating.

But here is the thing: just doing that for a month isn’t enough. In order to stay physically healthy and to maintain a lifestyle that will help you be in ministry for the long haul, you need to adjust how you take care of yourself physically and make the necessary changes. Consider starting small and just trying to eat better. Stop the late night snacking, stop eating all the snacks students eat when they eat them, and start trying to eat more foods that are around the outside aisles of the supermarket.

Going beyond that, it’s also beneficial to start trying to exercise or just be more active in your everyday life. Making these types of changes will help you to feel better overall. You will find your body being more rested, you will have more energy, you will sleep better, and you will ultimately find yourself being more apt and ready to engage in ministry because of how you are feeling and the way your body is strengthening.

Spiritual.

As ministers of the Gospel the sad reality is our spiritual health can often suffer as we seek to love and care for others as we point them to Jesus. But that cannot be the case for us. If we continue to pour out without being poured into, then we will eventually be giving from nothing which will lead to burn out, bitterness, and potentially walking away from our faith. Instead I would challenge you to think through your spiritual rhythms and how your relationship with Jesus is doing. Are you spending time just being present with Him? Are you reading your Bible on a consistent basis outside of what would be considered work? Is your prayer life something you are actively engaged with? Are you finding your passion for Jesus growing and being something you look forward to?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions let me encourage you to take a break. I don’t mean walk away from ministry but perhaps consider taking time (a weekend, a week, a sabbatical, or whatever works in your environment) to just breathe, commune with God, and reset your spiritual relationship with Jesus. If you are growing in your relationship with Jesus, the better suited and prepared you will be to lead, disciple, and point people to Jesus. So make sure to protect, engage with, and strengthen your relationship with Jesus to be the affective minister God has called you to be.

Emotional.

Emotional health isn’t something we always think about. In fact, I would assert that our emotional, relational, and mental health are the ones we are willing to let slide more than perhaps our physical and spiritual health. And I believe the reason for that is because our physical and spiritual health afford us a bit more control over situations and circumstances. We can see the results of physical health and we can set rhythms to help ourselves grow in spiritual health. But when it comes to our emotional health, we don’t always see how we are doing, whether positive or negative.

Let me encourage you to talk to someone you trust and ask their honest opinion about how you handle your emotions. Consider doing a self-evaluation on how you engage various circumstances, relationships, and tensions.

  • Ask yourself if your responses are healthy and beneficial.
  • Ask yourself if you know how to communicate how you are feeling (consider utilizing a feelings wheel in this case).
  • Ask yourself how you respond in moments of stress, tension, or moments when your emotions are running high.
  • Ask yourself how you are feeling about yourself, your job, your relationships, and your personal life.

These questions aren’t meant to give you a clinical diagnosis of your emotional health, but instead are intended to help you think about how you are doing emotionally. If you find your responses to these questions being unhelpful or potentially problematic, I would encourage you to reach out to someone to talk to (both a friend or mentor, and a professional). When your emotional health suffers, you suffer, your relationships suffer, and your ability to effectively minister suffers. So seek to assess how you are doing emotionally and to grow in your emotional health.

Relational.

Relational health is hugely important and I would say there are two key aspects to consider in this area. One, think about how you engage and care for others (the outflow) and two, think about the relationships you have and whether they need to be tweaked (the inflow). When it comes to our relational health it is highly important to think about how you are treating and engaging others. For many youth workers, they do this part well. In fact probably too well to their own detriment. They give and give and give, and even when they are on empty they give even more. Focusing on and caring for others is a huge part of our role, but we also need to think about our own relational health. If you just continue to give until you are on empty that isn’t helpful to anyone.

This brings us to the second part of relational health: the relationships you have and their affect on you. Often we are outwardly focused, but it is important to think inwardly as well since this is how you fill up your tank. You may have relationships that are life-giving for you, but you may also have relationships that are life-draining. So think through the relationships that you have and consider if some of them need to be improved, restricted, or removed for your health and well-being. There may be relationships in your life that are draining you and potentially toxic. Seeking to improve or change them by releasing certain relationships will be difficult in the immediate moment, but potentially life changing going forward.

What life or ministry changes are you making this year?

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?

3 Parties You Can Host with Little to No Budget

It is around this time of year that many of us are hosting Christmas parties. They may be for students, your volunteers, or just a personal one at home. But if you are like many churches, your budget probably has taken a hit over the last couple of years and your parties are probably looking or going to look a little different as a result. Now it could be easy to lament and throw out all the reasons this affords us problems and more difficulties, but that would be neither helpful nor encouraging. I would like to suggest a different option: be creative with what you do have and focus on making the party meaningful and intentional.

This may sound like a pass when it comes this time of year because we think about all that we have done in the past and what we could do with a proper budget. But it benefits no one to bemoan what cannot be changed. Instead, seeking to do what you can with what you have and focusing on the people you are blessing will help make these moments a success.

Today, I want to offer you three party ideas that you can host on little to no budget, but before I do, I want to highlight a few areas where we as leaders must lead out in these moments.

  • Have a positive attitude. Your attitude will set the tone of the party. If you are upset, frustrated, or bitter going into it, others will pick up on it and respond in kind. So be positive and excited about what you have planned.
  • Utilize décor where you can. Even on a minimal or empty budget, there are ways to get creative with decoration and ambiance. You could utilize someone’s fake Christmas tree, you could bring in flowers or greenery from outdoors, you could put out tablecloths, you could play music, or you could utilize items from your home or homes of other people you know. All of these help to make the atmosphere feel special and intentional.
  • Always have music. Using music to break up the silence is an easy way to make the environment feel intentional. You can leverage any number of free services like Pandora or Spotify to play music, lighten the mood, and encourage fellowship.
  • If possible, have food. This is tough when you don’t have a budget, but think about different options. Maybe a local supermarket would be willing to donate. Perhaps there is a local family who butchers their own animals and could donate some food. Or maybe someone in your church would be willing to donate hotdogs for a grill out. Or maybe you just bake a bunch of the snap-and-bake cookies. Any of these options could work, and will help you generate the atmosphere you are looking for.
  • Be creative and have fun. If you have to come up with new and unique ways to have a party or gathering because the budget has been cut, it is easy to focus on the negatives or what we don’t have. But when we do that, it keeps us from utilizing our talents and creativity to have a unique and different party. So think outside the box, build a fun gathering, cast vision well, laugh a lot, and look to have a unique party that people will enjoy.

1. A breakfast or dessert party.

This is a fun and relatively easy one to host and it can be done in a couple different ways. One way to pull this off is to ask the parents of students to provide the food for the party. We did this for our leader Christmas party and it was fantastic. We did a dessert and hot coffee/cocoa bar, and the amount of desserts that came was overwhelming. Parents went above and beyond in what they provided and were completely behind an opportunity to encourage and bless our leaders.

The second option would be to do a potluck with those who are coming. At first glance, this feels like a tacky way to have food at your party, but it is all in how you cast the vision. If you simply drop this on your people right before the party, then it will feel tacky. But if you cast the vision and the intention of doing so, it will bring people in even more. To say the week of “bring a dish to share” versus telling your people a month before to “bring your favorite Christmas dish and we will share our food, recipes, and stories of how we got them,” will generate very different responses and outcomes. So think about how and why you will cast this vision and party, and then implement it.

2. A White Elephant or Secret Santa party.

This is something we often associate with student Christmas parties, but maybe not so much with our adult volunteers. However, these could be fun parties to have throughout the year and with a multitude of different settings and groups. How fun would a White Elephant Gift Exchange be to celebrate the end of the year or to kick off the start of a new semester? You could even theme the gift exchange to bring another unique element to it. You could do an “upcycled gift exchange,” “a re-gifted exchange,” or one that has a dollar amount attached to the exchange (i.e. $5 or less).

Bringing in Secret Santa throughout the year would also allow for your leaders to bless one another and to help foster the culture and community you desire. It will generate ways to care for and love others in your group while having fun doing so. If you choose to incorporate these ideas throughout the year, I would recommend thinking about changing the names to something that highlights it isn’t just part of the Christmas season (i.e. change Secret Santa to Secret Leader or Anonymous Leader Blessing). As you bring these ideas into your parties, they can help you leverage these moments to greatly encourage, bless, and care for your people in a unique and creative way.

3. A game party.

This is one that should be fairly easy for youth workers to host. Challenge your volunteers to bring their favorite games from home to play with each other, and then utilize other games that you have on hand as well. Our volunteers love to compete, but often tone it back when doing so with students. You are now giving them the opportunity to have fun and go all out while playing together.

I would also encourage you to put out some active games too. I know for our ministry we have leaders who love bag toss/cornhole, GaGaBall, and 9 Square. We have these and it is so much fun watching my leaders play together. They laugh with one another, they have friendly banter, and they ultimately just fellowship with each other. You may not have those activities, but put out a frisbee or play kickball together. Doing these types of activities and just having fun is huge as it helps to foster an environment and culture that you need.

It’s Okay to Say No

Often I think we fall into the cycle of saying “yes” in ministry. Can you make this event work: yes. Can you stay late and do a counseling session: yes. Can you work over 50 hours a week: yes. Can you sacrifice your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health for the sake of your job and calling: yes. Will you forsake your time, time with family and friends, building a healthier or healthy marriage to meet the demands of your job: yes.

What I believe we often fail to realize is that it is okay to say no. No is not a four letter word, even in ministry. It is healthy and needed and we must find ways to utilize it in a proactive and beneficial manner. If we don’t learn to say no now, we could actually become burnt out, bitter, or even turn our backs on the the church. Learning that saying no is healthy and appropriate will help us to sustain not only our time in ministry but be better ministers of the Gospel as a result. But the question remains: how do we do that well?

Don’t say no just to say no.

The first thing we need to understand about saying no is that you don’t say it just because you can. When you say no you should be saying it for a good and rational reason. Don’t say no simply to shut down a situation or person. Instead let there be a purpose and rationale to how and why you say it. Think about your priorities and what you will or need to say yes to. As you build these priorities it allows you to say no to certain things as you focus on what you need to say yes to. What you are doing is building a balanced and intentional focus in your life which allows you to not only care about others but also to care for yourself.

Be intentional and thoughtful when you say no.

It is easy when we say no to simply just state “no” to someone and be dismissive. I think we instead need to be thoughtful and caring as we say no to someone or something. Often those moments allow for us to be a shepherd to our people as we share the heart and intentionality behind our no. Perhaps a student asks you to go to their concert but you cannot due to a previous commitment. Just saying no is dismissive and communicates you don’t care to the student. But if you are able to explain that you can’t due to a prior commitment, you can then talk about perhaps going to another event or even seeing how else you can invest in the student. This gives the person you are saying no to an understanding that you do care and aren’t just casting them to the side. It is about caring for others even as you care for yourself.

Understand the legitimacy of why you are saying no.

Sometimes it is easy to feel bad or guilty when we say no. We feel we are letting people down or not doing our job or questioning who will help if we don’t. The first thing you need to understand is you are not the Savior. Your job isn’t to be all things to all people, but to be the person and minister God has called you to be. That doesn’t mean you dismiss everyone and everything, but instead you realize that since it doesn’t all rely upon you, you understand you can say no.

When you say no, do not feel bad for doing so. In fact, saying no to some things means you can say yes to others. Saying no to working on your day off allows you to say yes to your family and friends. Saying no to working unlimited extra hours is saying yes to longevity in ministry. Saying no to trying to counsel someone in an area you aren’t trained in is saying yes to getting them the help they need from a trained counselor. When you say no it is highlighting the priorities and focuses of your life, and those areas (i.e. family, rest, time with Jesus, etc.) are valid and necessary places for you to focus your time and energy. So be willing to say no when it is needed and understand that it is acceptable to do so.

Set and keep boundaries.

Often in ministry, leaders will continue to say yes which can lead to frustration, tension, or burnout. I think we do this with the best of intentions because we want to shepherd and care for our people, but if we are not balancing our lives, time, and energy, we will not be the leaders we need to be. Instead we need to set and keep healthy boundaries. It may be as simple as saying no to phone calls on your days off or no to texts during hours you aren’t at work.

When you set boundaries it is easy to focus on what you are saying no to, but you are also saying yes to the necessary priorities in your life. But you must also make sure that while setting these boundaries is a good thing, it is entirely different to keep them. We are willing to sacrifice boundaries that protect us and our families to care for our students, but if we don’t keep our boundaries we are hurting ourselves, those we love, and our students. Our lack of boundaries and honoring them teaches our students that they don’t need them and it can hinder them from becoming the disciples they need to be.

Be able to explain why you said no.

You may have people ask you why you said no to them or a circumstance. Instead of being dismissive, look to share the rationale and the why behind what you are saying. People want to know why you have said no or turned down an invitation because they want to know you see them and care about them. Be willing to enter those conversations even though they may not be easy. Telling a student you can’t watch them in their competition will be hard and pull at your heart strings because you love them. But when you can explain the why, it will allow for them to know you still love them and it isn’t personal. These moments help you to not only develop personally but also allow for you to disciple your people and help them grow as well.

How do you say “no” well, and how do you still care for people when you do?

5 Tips for Hosting a Great Christmas Party

With the holiday season officially beginning, many of us are probably preparing to host at least one Christmas party this year. Whether you’re hosting your own, a leader party, or a student Christmas party, we all know the pressure to have a good one that people enjoy.

Over my many years in ministry I have hosted multiple Christmas parties, some were better than others, and today I want to give you five quick tips to host a great Christmas party for students. These aren’t the only things that will make your party great, but incorporating them will help you in that direction.

Before I get to those points, I do want to highlight one extra tip that will definitively make this a great party: make it highly relational. This is a huge thing whenever you host gatherings like this. Find ways to leverage the time together to pour into and care for your students. This is a great opportunity to connect with students on the fringe, have conversations with students you haven’t connected with yet, to encourage and speak truth into students’ lives, and to laugh and fellowship together. Take the opportunity presented to you and use it to build into and care for your students.

1. Pick a theme.

It is easy to just say “we are having a Christmas party,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you choose a theme and announce and champion it to your students, it will generate momentum and a desire to be a part of the gathering. It makes it more fun, engaging, and invitational to your students and their friends. Here are a few ideas to consider for your theme:

  • Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Challenge everyone to wear an ugly Christmas sweater and hand out prizes for various categories (most likely made by a grandmother, most itchy, most unique, most likely grabbed last minute). When choosing who wins, involve students to either choose or judge who wins to make it more engaging.
  • Christmas Costumes. This one you can take in any variety of directions. You could do Christmas movie costumes, Christmas decades costumes ( i.e. 1920s or 1700s), retro Christmas costumes, or even Christmas character costumes.
  • Christmas PJs. Have everyone come to the party in their favorite Christmas pajamas. You can market this as wearing your favorite jammies, fuzzy slippers, and cozy blankets, and then have the evening be more relaxed and centered on fellowship and community.

2. Set the ambiance.

Ambiance enhances any gathering, but especially when it comes to parties and outreach opportunities. A quick, easy and no-cost way of setting the ambiance comes from simply playing Christmas music. Create a Spotify account and make a Christmas playlist for your gathering. I love to throw in some old school songs just to see how my students respond.

Also consider utilizing Christmas decorations and lights to make the setting feel more Christmasy. Simple decorations and lights add so much to a gathering and it shows intentionality to your students. It communicates that you care and value them, and that will make them want to invite their friends.

3. Have a gift exchange.

Gift exchanges are a huge hit for Christmas parties because it gives students an opportunity to receive a present. To help keep this cost effective, challenge each student to bring their own wrapped gift to the party. However, always make sure to have some wrapped extra gifts just in case a student doesn’t bring a gift. We never know why a student can’t bring a gift, and you never want a student to feel singled out or left out because they didn’t have a gift. This ensures everyone gets a present and feels valued and loved.

For the gift exchange itself you could choose from any number of different options, but here are a few fun ones:

  • A white elephant gift exchange. You can add in rules for trading gifts or just allow everyone to pass a gift to their right a few times.
  • Randomly choosing grades to go and pick a gift.
  • Playing rock, paper, scissors among the group and allowing the winners to go and get a gift. If you don’t win, you keep playing with different people until you do.
  • In small groups, have students sit in a circle and one at a time roll a pair of dice. Once someone gets doubles they can go and choose a gift. The group keeps playing until everyone gets a gift.

4. Provide some sort of food.

Food makes events much more personal and welcoming. A few fun food ideas for your party can include:

  • A hot cocoa bar with all the toppings.
  • A fresh-baked cookie bar with different Christmas cookies to choose from.
  • A Christmas dinner.
  • A Christmas dessert bar.
  • A decorate your own Christmas cookie bar.

This may feel like an expensive option for many youth groups, but if you don’t have a budget for this consider some alternatives. You can ask parents to provide different items. You could utilize the older generations and ask them to provide the items needed and even invite them to the party to increase inter-generational ministry opportunities. You could utilize announcements in church or in your bulletin asking for donations for the party. These ways of gathering supplies and resources will help offset the cost, afford you opportunities to champion student ministries, and allow you to engage with members of your extended community.

5. Focus on what is important.

Sometimes we can allow these parties to just be parties. A place of fun and games and food, but we don’t focus on what we should be focusing on. Students can and will attend Christmas parties outside of yours that will be a place for just those things. But your party should focus on the important things. That is not to say that you don’t have fun, eats lots of food, and play silly games. Do those things, but don’t forget why you are gathering.

You are gathering to celebrate the birth of the Savior and to help your students grow as disciples of Jesus. So highlight those areas during your party. Have small group time. Talk about Jesus. Have a Christmas message. Encourage and challenge your students in their faith. Don’t let this become just another party, rather be intentional with its focus and purpose and leverage those opportunities to enrich the lives of students with the Gospel message.

5 Lessons I Learned from COVID

The past couple of weeks have been difficult. I was diagnosed as COVID-positive after beginning to experience the majority of symptoms and it has truly been a difficult illness to contend with. I am exceptionally thankful for the vaccine as I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to deal with all these symptoms and more without the antibodies.

Two of the biggest symptoms I’ve experienced have been fatigue (both physical and mental) and loss of memory. As someone who is always moving and has had a relatively decent memory, this was difficult to deal with as it affected not only what I did at home but aspects of my job function as well. I tried to make sure I had communicated everything and remembered all I needed to pass to my team while I was home sick, but I quickly saw there were aspects I missed or simply forgot.

But through this season I began to see God working in my life and teaching me various lessons. Lessons I knew, but wasn’t always good at following. Today, I simply want to share with you five things I have learned, and relearned, during my time in quarantine, and I hope that these are an encouragement and a challenge for you.

1. Breaks are needed.

This is one of the first things I learned during COVID. My energy levels tanked and I wasn’t able to go from task to task like I used to. My mind couldn’t focus, my physical energy was depleted, and I couldn’t keep going. While I first lamented that my body wasn’t producing the results I was used to, I began to see how important breaks are in our daily routine. It was during those breaks that I could reflect and think about various topics. It was during those breaks that I could be present. And those breaks allowed me to find refreshment and encouragement.

When we are working in ministry we don’t often afford ourselves breaks even though we need them. And this period of quarantine has taught me to be better about pressing pause and taking time to breathe, refocus, and reflect. So make sure to take breaks.

2. Rest is necessary.

Even more than breaks, I learned the importance and need for rest. I have known this for many years and have even written about it. But if I am fully transparent, I struggle with this. I am a go, go, go type of person. I am always thinking about the task at hand and the next ones that are coming. Elise would tell you that I struggle with sitting still and relaxing, and that is very true.

In the ministry world I think this mentality affects us more than we care to admit. There is always something to do. Always someone to meet with or help. Always a lesson to give or conversation to be had. But we don’t always think about ourselves and the rest we not only need but deserve. My administrative assistant reflected to me that perhaps God was using this time to challenge me and force me to slow down and rest. And you know what? She was right. I haven’t had to handle all of the “work stuff” because I couldn’t. I stayed home from two weeks of youth group and went to bed early. I can’t tell you the last time I did that, but it felt good to rest and refresh.

God’s desire for those He calls to ministry isn’t that we kill ourselves doing it. But rather that we allow Him to sustain and work through us to accomplish His plan. But we can only be used by Him if we are keeping ourselves healthy and rested. God Himself rested multiple times both in the creation account and throughout His earthly ministry. And if rest is good for God it also good for us. Coming out of this time of isolation and quarantine one of the rhythms I want to be more intentional with is rest and time for refreshment, and I want to encourage all of you to do so as well.

3. It’s okay to ask for and receive help.

During this period of quarantine I had to ask for a lot of help, and if I’m being honest that was incredibly humbling for me. As someone who is a self-starter and tends to be prideful about being able to do things on my own, I had to learn to stop and ask for help because I couldn’t do things due to being in isolation.

But it was during this time that I saw my team rise to the challenge, take ownership, and surpass my expectations. It was humbling to ask, but in doing so I saw my teammates use their gifts and take larger leadership roles. It was a privilege to witness their skills and gifts be utilized and it was also a teaching moment for me as I learned to let go and get help. Going forward I am leaning by into the skills and talents of others and releasing more as I trust others to help and lead.

4. Letting go is necessary.

I’m not sure if you’re like me, but I like order and control. I like to know that everything will function well and that it will all follow a plan. But when you’re sidelined with COVID, your best laid plans go out the window. I had to call in favors, be willing to not be in control, and let go of the day to day managing of the ministry. It was hard and in the beginning it brought some anxiety and tension. But in letting go I was able to lean into trusting God with my time. In letting go I learned to not try and be the savior of the ministry. In letting go I was able to release the pressure that I had felt and truly rest in Christ and His sustainment and peace. Letting go brings freedom. Letting go builds trust. Letting go teaches you to rely upon God and let Him be the capstone in your life and ministry.

5. If it all relies on you, you’re in trouble.

Sometimes in our ministry roles we can put all the pressure on ourselves to make our programs and ministries succeed. It may not be something we consciously do but it may be reflected in our subconscious. Do you feel like a failure if the program doesn’t go how you want? Do you feel like you aren’t making a difference if only a few students show? Does a single negative comment deflate you completely?

I think these feelings and perspectives can come about because we believe we have to be the figure head and leader. But we also put unfair pressure on ourselves because we infer a savior complex upon ourselves. The truth is that there is only one Savior, and that isn’t me and it isn’t you. If we try to focus a ministry and it’s success on ourselves (whether consciously or subconsciously) we will fail. Instead we must be willing to release and trust both God and our team. In doing so we are releasing control and holding it in an open hand toward God rather than clenching our fists around the control we desire. So be willing to step back, release, and remember that it doesn’t rely upon you. You are just the ambassador and the mouthpiece for the Gospel and God wants you to release and rest in Him.

Book Review: A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture

Recently we purchased “A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture,” a new book by our friend Walt Mueller from CPYU. When Walt first indicated he was writing this book I asked him if it would be helpful to take adult leaders through it even though the title indicates that it is for students. His reply was “yes” and that it would be beneficial for leaders and parents alike to walk through this book, and to consider reading it with their students as well. We decided to provide copies to our adult leaders, with the goal of discussing it at our quarterly training sessions. My hope is that today’s post provides you with insight on this book and gives you an understanding to know if it will be useful in your context (and spoiler alert, I believe it will be).

Walt writes in a way that is both easy to understand, and also in a way that challenges his readers to think biblically on a wide range of topics. This book is geared toward middle school, high school, and college-age students to challenge them on how they view, engage with, and respond to culture. The book is not long at all–94 pages total including the appendices–but contains an immense amount of wisdom and helpful tools and thoughts. At the end of each chapter there are reflection questions that can be utilized both in an individual context but also in a group discussion.

Walt spends the first four chapters talking about culture, its effects on humanity, God’s design for us and culture, and how followers of Jesus should live within the culture of which we are a part. These chapters are very helpful in building a framework to guide readers to think Christianly about how they live, the media they take in, and how they should respond to and engage with culture in a hurting and broken world. These chapters help the reader think biblically about our world, and challenges them to engage and live in it rather than shy away or retreat from it.

The final two chapters deal with two real world applications to how we as followers of Jesus should be living and engaging with our culture: gender and social media. Walt never shies away from the difficult topics but instead engages them head on. Walt delivers biblical truth with love and grace, and challenges his readers to always hold their views and perceptions to what the Word of God says, and to see if they match up.

The conversation on gender is never an easy one and it has people polarized on both sides of the conversation. Walt takes a traditional biblical view on this conversation but also readily acknowledges the complexity of the conversation. Walt knows this isn’t an easy conversation and actually encourages the readers (in this case, students) to continue talking about this topic with trusted Christian adults in their lives. Walt further challenges his readers to not simply be people who call out the wrongs within culture or their peers but to lovingly engage with them and to share truth in love not condemnation.

The chapter on social media is challenging to students and adults alike and is one I would recommend youth workers take students and families through as it provides so much knowledge and insight into how social media shapes us. Walt also provides great insight into the how, what, and why questions when it comes to sharing content on social media. This alone is a great resource to share with parents and students as I believe it will challenge all of them to think differently (Christianly) about what they are sharing online. And to be frank, it would actually be greatly beneficial to share those insights with your church as a whole.

If you are looking to purchase this book you can head over to CPYU’s website to purchase “A Student’s Guide to Navigating Culture.” I would highly recommend purchasing this book for your own reading but also to utilize it among your leaders, parents, and students. How you choose to leverage this with your students should be based off of a couple criteria:

  • Are your students currently walking with Jesus? This isn’t a necessary piece as Walt outlines God’s redemption story for humanity in chapter 3, but it would be more suited to those who are walking with Jesus especially considering the cultural topics that are addressed within this book.
  • Are your students asking questions about culture and faith? This question actually suits most of our students but you will have some students who have already asked those questions and moved beyond them. This is a great entry level book, so discerning if it is helpful for the questions your students are asking will allow for you to make the right decision in who reads it.
  • What is the follow up? This is a big part of utilizing this book. The topics and questions it poses to the readers are ones that can be addressed individually but would be much more helpful if addressed with a trusted Christian adult or leader. That way students are able to continue the process of addressing how they engage with and respond to the culture of which they are a part.

What books or resources have you found helpful as you minister to students and their families?