5 Ways to Make Students Feel Known

Our students are craving authentic relationships with adults who love and care for them, and we have the privilege of stepping into that space. Students are longing for people to support them and be with them, but how do we do that well?

There are literally hundreds of ways you can love and care for students, and honestly within your own ministry you will have ways that work for your group alone. But if you find yourself scratching your head and asking, “How do I do this well?” I want to offer five quick and easy ways you can make students feel known, loved, and valued each week.

These shouldn’t be the only ways you do this, but if you put these five into action they will serve as a catalyst for continued growth and opportunities to speak into the lives of your students.

Know their names.

There is such power in knowing someone’s name and being able to call them by it. I love the passage in John 20:11-18 after Jesus’ resurrection when He calls Mary by her name. It changes everything.

Mary is completely distraught after finding that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. Unbeknownst to her, Jesus shows up and has a conversation with her. For whatever reason, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until He says her name. And in that moment, everything changed for Mary. She had hope. There was no more fear. There was a future where before she lived in the past. Love overwhelmed her where fear used to reign. She had purpose, an identity, and a Savior.

When we know the names of students it changes everything and lets them know that they have a place where they are loved, known, and desired.

Show hospitality.

When students come to your program, do they know they are loved, valued, and wanted? Does it feel welcoming and safe? One of the best things you can do is have people love and welcome your students and families as they arrive. Have people greeting who can simply say hi and direct people. Equip and empower your snack team to love and engage with your students. These moments can change lives and make students feel like part of the family.

We have an amazing older couple who come in and bake chocolate chip cookies and pretzels for our café. But recently we have asked them to actually work the café, and they have accepted the challenged and excelled at it. They recently approached me and said, “Nick, we get to sit and talk with students and they tell us about their day and all the weight they are carrying. And you know what? We just sit and listen and tell them we love them. Then we pray with them. And guess what? They keep coming back to talk to us!” Those types of moments, when we show students hospitality by showing them Jesus, change lives.

Listen well.

One of the best ways you can value students, and honestly everyone else too, is by listening well. When a student is talking to you, listen fully to what they are saying. Don’t listen to offer answers. Don’t listen to give advice. Don’t listen only when it’s interesting. Listen to all of what they are saying.

Students can tell right away if you are engaged by how you listen and respond to them. So show them you care by listening well and being wholly present. Look to listen to learn and understand. Listen to know more about them. And listen with love, grace, and truth. When you listen well, students know that they matter and it affords you great opportunities and privilege to speak truth into their lives.

Have authentic conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with listening but takes it a step further. Listening is incredibly helpful and necessary but actually engaging in authentic conversations will further help students feel know and cared for. When you listen well it enables you to respond well. As you engage with students ask good questions, show them you care by how you respond, validate them and their feelings, challenge them, care for them, and share life with them. When you allow for those aspects to highlight your conversations with them, you are giving them inherent worth and value through your authenticity and transparency.

Be for students.

This final thought is one we would all agree on. Of course we are for students because we are in student ministry. We host events, train leaders, teach the Bible, come up with crazy fun games, study for hours, go to students’ games and events, and eat way too much junk food. We would say that these things and more highlight that we are for students.

But let me ask you a question: would your students say or know that you are for them? I am not casting doubt that you are for them, but simply asking if they know you are. Often we can assume that our actions and conversations highlight one thing but how others perceive or receive them, they might say another.

It would be beneficial to ask some of your leaders and key students if they would say you are for students. To ask them how you can do that better. It may not be a response you want or are looking for but it will give you insight into how you are presenting and engaging, and perhaps what could be done differently. Be for your students. Love well, engage with them, step in the gap, and be willing to change things if necessary.

Effectively Using Social Media

Most of us recognize that social media is an effective tool and means of communication in student ministry. But we should also critically think through how and why we use it. Social media is a powerful tool that we can leverage but if we don’t have a plan or target for the intent and purpose of it, we are simply using an effective tool in an ineffective way. Today, I want to share a few things that you should think through as you utilize social media to equip, empower, and disciple your students.

Know your purpose for using social media.

It is easy to simply jump on the social media bandwagon because everyone else is using it in student ministry. But how and why each ministry uses social media is different. Some use it to simply put out content that is engaging. Others use it to communicate information. Some will use it to evangelize or disciple people. Still others use it to highlight their ministry, students, leaders, or families. What is your purpose, or your ministry’s purpose, in using social media? Once you answer that question you can begin building effective social media content for your audience.

Think through which apps you will use.

As you begin thinking about how to utilize social media effectively, you must think about which apps or social media channels you will use and why. Think through which age demographics are using which social media platforms. Consider who your primary audience is on each platform. Think about whether the social media you are using is going to be effective for your purpose. Also, read through the background and user agreement for the apps or platforms you are using. Some social media platforms were built for nefarious purposes and their desire is actually completely anti-student ministry. As you dig into these factors and engage with them, it will help you choose which apps to utilize and think about how and why you are using them.

Have a social media posting schedule.

Having consistent times to post and share content is hugely important. It affords you a timetable of when you post, it allows you to shape what is posted and when, and it allows your people to know and follow your schedule. It could be as simple as choosing a day or two to share posts that encourage engagement, it could be a day set aside for a weekly devotion, it could be reminders for programming, or it could be a weekly post highlighting leaders or students. Once you have a schedule figured out, make sure to communicate that with your teams, your students, and with families. This then affords you an opportunity to share what and why you are posting and to help curate buy-in to the ministry.

Post at appropriate times.

As you begin thinking about what you are posting, it is important to think about when you are posting. As simple as it seems, knowing what time of day and what days to post various content is highly important. Posting content for your audience means knowing when your audience is most inclined to view that content. If you’re posting on a school day for students it wouldn’t be prudent to post at 10 a.m. when they are in class. The same could be said for knowing when and what to post for parents; posting during a work day may not be prudent but posting once they are home would be.

Leverage your content to reflect your vision.

This is a big piece of utilizing social media well: use your platform to share your vision and the heart of your ministry. Whenever you post to social media make sure the vision and heart of your ministry is clear. This is true not just in the words you share but your photos and videos should communicate that as well. If your vision is focused discipleship communities and not large events, it would be prudent for your images to reflect that. So think through what your are sharing how it can best represent and reflect your vision well.

Incorporate photos and stories of your people.

One of the best ways to utilize social media well is using photos of your people. When you take photos of your students, leaders, or families and share them, it brings attention to your ministry and drives engagements up. People want to see what is happening and be invested in the important parts of your ministry; and your people are just that. So include photos and stories that share what God is doing and allow that to drive engagement on your social media platforms.

Book Review: The Great Sex Rescue

I had heard a few podcast interviews with Sheila Wray Gregoire, but after listening to one last month on Theology in the Raw with her and her daughter Rebecca Lindenbach, I knew it was time to read their book (also co-written by Joanna Sawatsky). The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended is an important, insightful book that I highly recommend everyone read, regardless of your marital status.

We started talking more about counseling last week here on the blog and over on our Instagram account, and The Great Sex Rescue is a must-have for anyone doing pre-marital or marital counseling. Not only that, any youth or church leader who is speaking on sex and marriage to their students or congregants regardless of the setting will benefit from the concepts, facts, and perspectives in this book. And if you are married, the book includes discussion questions and other things to work through as a couple that will help strengthen and grow intimacy in your relationship.

One of the things I most appreciated was how the authors seek to reframe unhealthy messages about sex and intimacy that have been prevalent in the evangelical church for decades. Each chapter ends with a segment called “rescuing and reframing” which helps the reader to shift from inaccurate and harmful beliefs and statements to healthy, biblical, and factual statements. And while much of the book’s content is geared toward married couples, we would be remiss not to begin the process of reframing for our young people now. They deserve the best possible narrative and information when it comes to topics of sex and intimacy and the church should be a safe, healthy place for them to receive that information, especially if they are not hearing it at home.

The Great Sex Rescue also features research from a survey conducted with 20,000+ women, which provides data points and educational information particularly relating to married couples in the church. The information they gathered sheds light on what has been happening in marriages as a result of the messages, books, and stigmas that have been taught in the Christian community. While I found much of this information sad and disheartening, I also felt challenged to help influence the Christian community to do better. As followers of the Author of marriage, intimacy, and sex, we should be giving the best possible information we can to those we teach and lead. It is our responsibility to filter out harmful messages whenever we are made aware of them, and this book does exactly that. We can also begin to paint a better, more beautiful picture of what intimacy should look like within marriage, and why it matters.

Do yourself, your students, and fellow church-goers a favor and read this book. Then share it with other leaders, pastors, and couples. We can begin to re-write the broken messages of the past, forging a better, healthier future for our churches, and stronger, more intimate marriages. Thank you to Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna for putting in the work to share this book with the world.

Responding Well to a Crisis

Working in both security and various ministries, I have witnessed or been involved in a variety of crises. Whether it was treating a compound fracture, being pastor-on-call when a deacon and father passed from a sudden heart attack, caring for a family who’s loved one took their life, administering first aid to a twisted knee, handling a mental health crisis, or ensuring a leader suffering a heart attack stayed conscious while EMTs arrived, there are moments in all of our lives that will be crisis moments. We must be prepared to step into them well.

Not all of us will have the same skillset or training, but God has uniquely and divinely equipped and positioned each of us to be present in those moments for an express purpose. I believe that in order to truly handle those moments and situations well, we must be prepared and knowledgeable so we can care well for our people.

Today I want to provide you with some ways to prepare (as best we can) for crisis moments by helping us think through steps before, during, and after the crisis that will help us best respond and minister to the people under our care. I will say this though: these steps do not make you a crisis negotiator nor afford you any special training or ability to be something we are not. In many crisis moments referral is necessary as we are not equipped to handle various things. This is simply meant to help you think through how you respond and are equipped as we know that we will experience these moments in our lives.

Pre-crisis.

Know your team. This is so important because knowing who is on your team and their skillset allows you to be prepared for various circumstances. Perhaps you have a mental health counselor, or an EMT, or a nurse on your team. Knowing these people allows you to gain knowledge and insight from them, to empower them to take the lead in crisis situations, and helps your leaders take more ownership because they are seen and empowered to lead.

Know your networks. This is one of the most important things you can do before a crisis. If you know the people, agencies, and services that are provided in your community, you will be better suited to know how to respond and who to respond to. Knowing the counselors in your community and building a relationship with them allow you to help people better. Knowing the crisis hotline and helpful, caring, knowledgeable health professionals means you can bring a trusted resource and needed care to your people. Knowing the police officers, EMTs, and firefighters means that you not only can advocate for and care for first responders, but can also help them know and love your people and vice versa. When you build a network you are building a trusting and caring community and you can be a bridge to the person who is experiencing the crisis by connecting them to someone you know and trust.

Be educated. Whether it is by taking a CPR and first aid course, reading or listening to trusted resources, furthering your academic education, or talking with a professional, make sure to continue to grow in your knowledge and expertise. The more you know the better suited you will be to care for people and respond to a crisis.

During the crisis.

Stay calm. This is huge. As a leader, your level of intensity, panic, or calm will reflect outward to your people and the person experiencing the crisis. Think about this: if a fire alarm goes off and you start freaking out and yelling “we are all going to die,” your people may not respond well. But if you keep a cool head and direct people out, making sure they are safe, then your people will reflect your resolve and peace. This is true in any crisis situation, so always seek to remain calm. Now I will say this: it is okay to feel the intensity and adrenalin within yourself, but don’t let that be reflected outward. Should a student call you and say they have a plan to take their life, it is okay to feel all the things and begin to make a plan of intervention. But don’t let the intensity or panic reflect in your voice or in your actions.

Remember and rely on your training. This goes hand-in-hand with staying calm. The more training you have the calmer you will be in a situation. Sometimes when a crisis develops it is helpful to simply pause and breathe for 3-5 seconds and calm your heart as you assess what is happening. As you assess remember your training and step in and respond to the best of your ability.

Bring in necessary people. This goes back to knowing your team. You may have some training or equipping, but there may be others who are better suited to respond. I’ve had various types of training when it comes to handling first aid and crises, but if someone is hurt I am defaulting to the nurses and doctors in my program. Their training and education is much greater than mine and they can handle the situation in better ways.

Contact the necessary people and/or agencies. This is paramount. If there is a fire we all know to call 911, but do you know who to call in a mental health crisis? What about in the event of a power outage? What if there is a tornado or hurricane? Knowing who to call and when is key in a crisis, and honestly something that all leaders of a ministry should know and equip their volunteers with as well.

Pray. This is something that you as the primary responder should be doing throughout the crisis, but I would also encourage you to call your leaders and people in your ministry to pray as well. You may not always have that luxury as some crisis moments are between you and just the individual, but if a crisis happens in a public setting like your youth group, encourage your leaders to pull people away from the crisis (nothing elevates stress and embarrassment like a crowd hovering) and have them pray for what is happening.

Care for your people. Let the person(s) involved in the crisis know that you love them and are there for them. Be a calming presence and allow the peace that God affords us to be reflected through you to them. Also, if you aren’t the primary responder, make sure to care for the other people at the crisis. If a nurse steps in, care for the friends of the individual. Pray, read scripture, cry together, and walk with them.

Post-crisis.

Continue to care for your people. Sometimes after a crisis has been handled and the appropriate people and agencies contacted, it may seem easier to assume our job is done. But honestly your job is only just beginning. Continuing to care for your people, those who had the crisis and those affected by it, is paramount. As you continue to follow up, speak love and truth, and minister to people, you will be showing them the power, peace, and love of God.

Stay involved to the appropriate degree. As you continue to care for people, it is also important to know your role. It is easy to for us to want to care and be involved, but there are only so many degrees to which we can do so. Trying to get involved in the counseling sessions after a mental health crisis could muddy the waters. But continuing to care for and minister to that person is key. Trying to get into an operating room isn’t allowed, but sitting with the family and being present is hugely important. Seek to find a balance to the level of involvement that enables you to care well for others.

Know your limitations. While care and involvement are good things, it is also helpful to know our place and our limitations. Sometimes we can be prone to inserting ourselves into situations that don’t warrant our involvement, or exhausting ourselves through our efforts to stay involved. So know your skillset, know how you can be of the best help, and know when to step back and let others handle the situation. This will help you make sure that your people receive the best possible care and allow you to breathe and find peace in the midst of the aftermath of the crisis.

Pray. Prayer is something that should continue to be a part of this journey. Pray for your people. Pray for everyone involved. Pray for continued treatment and helpful results. Pray for healing and resolution. Pray for peace and for people to see and trust Jesus. As you pray continue to trust God and rely on Him to bring healing and restoration to this moment.

Talk to a counselor or a trusted person for decompression. This is more about self-care. As someone who has been in too many traumatic situations to count, I know the weight they can put on you. The emotional, physical, psychological, and even spiritual weight that can come from these events can feel overwhelming and crippling. So make sure to talk to someone and process through what has happened. Release the emotions, talk through what happened, and process your thoughts. Doing this will help you heal and be a better minister to those in your care.

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.