Archive - November, 2011

Do I Need College Education In Youth Ministry?

Just last week, a couple of youth workers and myself were asked this question on twitter:

Anyone have info on the importance of a college education for a career in YM?

I gave a quick answer at the time, but here is a slightly longer answer…

1) Yes and No: If you are in full or part-time paid ministry I would say “yes”. If you are a volunteer my answer is “no”. However, I would challenge you to educate yourself and understand God’s Word, youth culture, and ministry skills as best as your time allows. Leaders should be learners, even if you are a volunteer. Volunteers have a huge impact on students. In my ministry, my volunteers are the heroes who truly are in the trenches investing in students. It’s imperative they are growing and learning…

2) College Gives Greater Theological Grounding: Being in full-time ministry, I have found that college forced me to get grounded theologically and gain valuable hermeneutical skills to teach and apply the Bible. I am not sure I would have forced myself otherwise?

3) College Gives Greater Youth Ministry Skills: No matter how much many would debate the value of theoretical college over practical real world youth ministry, there is still a great value in studying the “how’s and why’s” of youth ministry. In fact, many colleges use text books that are written by in the trenches veterans. Who wouldn’t want to learn from Duffy Robins and Doug Fields? Continue Reading…

I Messed Up! What Now?

I messed up! Now what? There have been many times in my ministry I have thought this to myself…

Whether it was poor communication, whether a students feelings were hurt, whether a parent was upset, or whether it was ______ (you fill in the blank), we have all messed up haven’t we? Mistakes are inevitable in youth ministry and depending how much experience we have does not always change this reality. As a youth worker I am called to be diligent in all I do and act professionally even when others don’t think that youth ministry is a profession….

But, how do I recover from the times I mess up? 

1) Own Your Mistake: In many church settings, it is easy to live on the defense and never want to admit when we mess up. Somehow we think we might lose our job if we do so. However, as the years go by, I am finding that people respect leaders to humbly accept their mistakes and take full ownership of the mess.

2) Say Sorry Quickly: When we mess up, it’s imperative to catch the people we have impacted quickly so that a small fire does not become a wildfire. When we say sorry it’s important to have no conditions or “buts” about our mistake. Just recently I told some students, “as your youth pastor, I blew it on this one, and I am sorry”. It’s hard to say sorry to students, but there is massive value in teaching them to how to own mistakes in a world that plays the blame game and passes the buck…  They need Godly people to model how to own their mistakes and say sorry quickly. Continue Reading…

3 Things I am Changing Next Fall

One of the crucial lessons I have learned over the years is the need for regular evaluation of how my ministry is going. There are certain times of the year when it is impossible to get a chance to “come up for air”, but there are some natural breaks in seasons that allow me to pause and evaluate. For me these seasons of pause tend to be:

  • Mid-November prior to Thanksgiving and the Christmas rush, (now). 
  • Mid-March just before Easter and a new Spring season. 
  • Late May / early June as we are slowing down and getting ready for the summer.-
  • Early to mid-August as we evaluate the summer and get ready for the Fall kick off. 
This year in evaluating the Fall, I concluded that there are three things I definitely need to tweak or change for next Fall: 
1) Simplify: This year we had too many things on the calendar as we started out the Fall. It’s not that we did not have the capacity to do all the programs and events, but it was our inability to give any one event a great deal of promotion. When we have too many things on our calendars, students focus will get lost. It’s better to “build” into the Fall rather than have a million things to focus on.
2) Do not make drastic changes in our programs until the Fall is well under way: This year, just 4 weeks into Fall we created an “Other Religions” series in our discipleship environment. It had incredible content and I had different volunteers stepping up to research and create material weeks ahead of their day to present. With this discipleship environment we usually have a 15 minute large group message and then break students into small groups to dig deeper into the passages / study. However, because we had so much content to get through each week, we decided to keep the large group together and have students ask questions and discuss the topic in the large group. Although this series seemed to work well, I believe it would have had greater effectiveness if we scheduled it later in the year. For me, my take away was this: Fall needs to be a time of building relational connections in our small group environments. While content is great in these kind of series, they are better used later in the year once we have established our small groups and students are settled and comfortable. Continue Reading…

Teaching Students God’s Truth: Can we teach it all?

A long time ago I read by Andy Stanley and Stuart Hall. In this book Stanley and Hall outline the need to teach students the absolute essentials for their faith development. At the time I remembered agreeing with the premise that we only have so many hours per year of teaching time with our students. Therefore, the question we must ask is: What do we absolutely want them to know and understand by the time they graduate? Stanley asserts that the Bible is full of truth, but not all of it is applicable to teenagers. We can’t give them everything, so must consider what gets ditched and what do we keep and teach?

For me recently, I have been evaluating my teaching and programs and I am concluding that some of our teaching isn’t essential. It’s good yes, but essential, no. Given that my total teaching time with my high school students will be around about 50-60 hours per year, I must be ruthless in getting rid of teaching that could be good, but not essential when all is said and done. I am must work equally hard in adding material that is essential to the specific group of students I am working with. Here’s what I can do to ensure that I am hitting the most important and applicable areas:

1) ESSENTIAL AREAS OF TEACHING: Write down the top ten areas that every student in your program needs to know by the time they graduate or “move up”. Look at what you teach in a 3-5 year period and make sure these top-ten areas are included first. This process should take a few months to come up with as you prayerfully consider these areas.

2) ESSENTIAL BIBLE BOOKS: Write down the most essential books of the Bible that you need to cover in a 3-5 year period and map out a provisional a plan. Be sure to have a balance in Old Testament / New Testament material.

3) BALANCED PROGRAMS: Create a clear balance of programs that “fire fight” the issues students are facing as well as environments that help students to “fire prevent” by teaching foundational theology and doctrine. For us, we have two weekly meetings. One is topical and mostly issue related (I call this “fire fighting”), while the other is clearly foundational faith building (I call this “fire preventing”).

4) ASK STUDENTS: Every few months, ask them what issues they and their friends are facing and create a “moving plan” that will hit the felt needs of the students. When we hit their issues and felt needs, they usually will learn more. These messages are presented in our midweek program that tackles topical issues in students lives. I survey my students once a year and I ask them every few months what areas / issues / topics they need to learn about.

5) ASK YOURSELF: Are you simply following a curriculum plan that someone else created for you, or whether you are giving your students the essentials that is specific to your group of students?

6) INVOLVE OTHERS: As noted above, I ask students continuously, but it’s essential to gain the insight and opinions of other youth workers in your ministry. Ask God to speak through the people who are working with your specific group of students and evaluate what you need to change and tweak. It’s imperative that we realize that we need to create a custom program for our specific group of students and not rely on someone else’s research that worked for their ministry in a different context. Too often we rely on curriculum and a scope and sequence that worked somewhere else, but maybe not for us. With all this said, I do you use curriculum regularly, but I tend to pick and choose what I feel we need for my group and dismiss what is not needed…

A hard question I must ask you today is this: Are you simply going through the motions of using a canned curriculum, or are you really seeking to create a custom program that is best for your specific context, environment, and students God has called you to minister to?

Finally, feel free to share any ideas as to how you create a balanced program with essential teaching?

Phil <><

A Helpful Reality for Youth Workers to Understand

Have you watched those newscasts where someone who has been saved gets to be reunited with the person or persons who saved them? The TV crews somehow manage to capture that moment, hours, days, or weeks after the saving event took place. The saved person gets to tearfully express their sincere thanks to the one who saved them. During the saving event however, there is much going on as emergency crews frantically work to revive someone or get them to safety. There is usually not a good opportunity at the time to express thanks…

In some ways, this is a reality for us in youth ministry. Hold on for a moment and let me explain… Our students are walking through a time of life where they are navigating through challenging decisions, painful consequences, and times of extreme anxiety. Yes, there are many laughs and smiles and many hilarious moments we share with them, but we can’t forget that students are in the middle of one of the most challenging times of life. They are moving from being concrete thinkers where they saw the world as a simple place, to abstract abstract thinkers who see the complexity in life and the reality of the challenges. They see the complexity of relationships and they are pained by the messiness of broken marriages and friendships that once looked simple from the outside. They feel the need to succeed in a world that is more competitiveness than ever, and a world that is less forgiving than ever… It’s these storms of life that every teenager has to navigate through and we are the ones who partner with parents and come into students lives to support, encourage, and equip them as they get tossed and battered by the winds and waves of adolescence…

In some sense, we as youth workers, are the emergency crew who come in just at the right time to help these students pull through and get to the other side of their adolescent journey. During this time, there is much going on, and much drama, and confusion as they face one issue from another. As teenagers they are also fully consumed with who they are and are trying to discover their unique identity and purpose in this journey through life.

The Helpful Reality for Youth Workers

As someone who has been working with students for a long time, I have noted that students will rarely thank us fully during their time of struggle or during their time in my youth ministries. They either forget to thank us, or are too consumed with teenage survival to realize who is helping them in that moment… It’s not to say that we don’t get some “thank you” moments. But, it’s important to realize that students don’t mean anything by it, they just don’t consider it fully at the time. Just like the person who is being pulled out of the water by life guards and being rushed to the hospital, these students are crisis mode as they navigate through the dangers and new realities of young adulthood.

If we are in youth ministry looking for affirmation from students and receiving continuous thanks for our efforts, we could become disappointed very quickly… It is usually way after they graduation that I begin to hear back from students and get hear their stories of young adulthood. It is often these times when I hear of an action or a conversation that the student remembers which made all the difference to them. It is then I am reminded that what I do is worth it… 

Today, as you minister to students, realize that they might not thank you for it at that moment, but like that person who has been saved from the treacherous seas, they will often seek you out later on to express their sincere thanks. Don’t be holding onto affirmation from them today as you might become disappointed and despondent that your efforts are meaningless… But do know, that you ARE making the difference!

For now, I want to say thank you to you! Thank you for ministering to students and investing in their lives. Thank you for giving up your time, talent, and treasure to make an eternal impact. One day you and I will have a joyful reunion with our students in Heaven and will have many incredible stories to share. Be a part of those stories today and don’t give up. Your reward is in Heaven and your thanks will be given in full…

Phil <><

Are Kids Fighting to Come To Youth Group?

I’ll never forget my friend Rick telling me about the night students were “fighting” to come to his midweek program! One evening, just before youth group started, he looked outside to see more students than he had ever seen at his church. He quickly thanked God for the gigantic turn-out and then went outside to greet many new faces… That’s when he discovered the sobering reality: One of his students was in conflict with another student at their local high school, and both had shown up to his youth group to “settle the matter”. Apparently a large number of students had come to watch the main event too!  Rick tells of how he “settled the matter” with the students in a more Christian way, but yet many of the students stayed for youth group.

As I talked to him about this incident, I will never forget thinking this: How can we get that many students to passionately show up for youth group and bring their friends every week? (Without the fights of course).

In the first few months of the Fall we have seen a big jump in numbers and have actually struggled to keep up with much of the growth we are seeing. If I am honest, I can point to some factors that have helped us grow numerically, but I don’t know that I am wise enough understand the full picture. However, below I  mention what I consider to be the greatest factors that have helped us grow in depth and numbers. Caution: This has taken nearly two years of prayer and hard work and there has been no quick fix to create growth…

Pray Earnestly! I know this should be a given, but it’s easy to get into the habit of depending on our skills and programs and forget to partner with the Holy Spirit. We cannot expect great things to happen unless we are depending on the One who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.

Fixate On Healthy Community: When I use the word “fixate”, I really mean that! Our students will tell you how much we have talked about, taught them, and created activities to build healthy community. We have students from over five different school systems and it is easy to have pockets of students who never get to know each other. If we don’t fixate on building healthy community we will default back for comfort and cliques. Therefore, it’s been imperative to create ice-breakers and activities that get new and established students talking, laughing, and working together. Students begin to realize that they have so much in common with people they did not know before. This in itself helps them to belong!

Listen and Give Ownership: Every year we survey our students to gain insights in a number of ways. It’s imperative that we listen to them! One question we ask them is, “What issues or struggles are students facing that we could talk about and help with?” From this question and ongoing conversations with our students, we gain incredible insights to their world as well as their spiritual and emotional needs. When we create a message series based on these needs you can bet they will show up! Next month we will also being doing a video series called “Slice of Life” where I video interview students about their faith, their struggles, and how God has helped them. We did this series last year and it had a huge impact. It all came from an idea one student gave us… Students show up when their questions are answered, their hurts are healed, and their ideas become reality…

Note: Obviously, we create messages and Bible studies based on what we know they need too. We can’t only respond to their felt needs. There has to be a good balance on “fire-fighting” the issues while also teaching many foundational “fire preventing” topics.

Invested Leaders: In my usual month I have many meetings and conversations with my youth leaders. In fact, I would say that my contact time with leaders has recently been higher than my contact time with students. It’s imperative that I realize how my investment in caring adults will pay off in the way they invest in students lives. I can either choose to be a shallow hero to every student, or I can choose to equip my leaders to become the fully invested youth leaders who make a greater difference on student at a time. Students will show up week after week when they know that a caring adult will be there to listen to their heart, celebrate life with them, and challenge them to grow spiritually.

There are many things I can add to this list, but I feel these are the “big ones” that have impacted our ministry over the last couple of years. What is working for you? What are you working towards? How are you helping students to fight to come to youth group?

Phil <><