While services are obviously a huge part of a successful youth ministry, I think it’s invaluable for you to take your youth gang outside of the four walls of the church. The truth is that the youth group or life group that PRAYS together and PLAYS together, STAYS together! That’s why I request my leadership team to host at least one “outside activity” a month beyond our usual youth services and small groups. You can choose whether those are fun or serious.
Here are just 4 quick thoughts to host a successful event to create some family fun:
Nobody ever told me in youth ministry that I would face many times when I was trying to bring the teenagers closer to Christ while I felt a million miles away from Him myself. Early in my ministry, I felt like a phony and a con artist during those non-feeling times. Though I was far from perfect, those silent seasons didn’t come because of the typical pitfalls (i.e. lack of personal devotion time, willful sin, or blatant disobedience). The old time preachers used to refer to these times as “when the heavens are brass.” It’s tough to tell your students, “Let’s all pray together, but I’m honestly not very sure myself that God is listening to me right now. So good luck on your end!”
Then one unforgettable day, I read Isaiah 50:10 and the lights came on. (Drum roll, please.)
“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys His servant? Let the man who walks in the dark and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”
Let me break down this awesome verse for you. Maybe it will help you (both as a Christ follower and as a youth leader) when you hit these dark times in your own ministry and walk with Christ:
1. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys His servant?”
The Lord used these words to clearly show me that God was talking to “His kids” in this verse, not nonbelievers. So I saw that even conscientious Christians sometimes walk through these dark, unfeeling times.
2. “Who walks in the dark…”
What are we supposed to do when the spiritual blackout comes? Keep walking! Keep doing the things you did before the lights went out. Don’t let yourself sit down on the inside, no matter how tempting it is to get spiritually lazy or quit.
3. “Trust in the name of the Lord…”
In the Old Testament, a person’s name reflected their character. So the Lord is telling us, “Trust My character as revealed through My Word.” God’s character can always be trusted when your feelings cannot.
4. “And rely on his God.”
In Hebrew, the word “rely” translates, “to lean heavily upon.” He’s saying, “Lean heavily upon My Word. You don’t have to worry. I’m steadfast and I won’t be moving! Lean heavily upon Me and you’ll still keep your balance.”
So the next time you face one of those “darkness of God” times (that’s what the early church fathers called it), be encouraged that it is all part of our growth and maturity in Him. You’re far from a phony. And remember Corrie ten Boom’s profound advice; “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets really dark, don’t panic and jump off! Just sit still and trust the conductor.”
In the few short years we have to impact their lives, we need to be giving our students two things – ROOTS and WINGS. One of the biggest ways that you give kids roots is by making memories together, both fun and spiritual. Many families today aren’t very good at doing this (or even if they are good at it), it has to become something that we become great at in our youth ministries. To many of us, this could feel like more of a “female” thing, but to all of my male youth pastor friends, it is essential that you become good at this too.
The issue is, sometimes we make this way too hard for ourselves. So let me share with you 7 simple pragmatic ways that I’ve used to make memories with my youth groups over the years.
(1) Remember that food is magic in creating memory moments.
I always joke by saying, “where two or more are gathered together in His name…there is food.” Food has an incredible way of bringing people together. Even Jesus knew this. Jesus, when He was with His disciples, didn’t give a last “lecture.” Instead, they shared a last “supper” together. You don’t have to make it difficult to be memorable. Just some snacks and drinks from Walmart or a dollar store can be as effective as serving a full course meal.
(2) Make INDIVIDUAL memories, not just CORPORATE ones.
Nothing says, “I care about you,” to a kid, like doing something special for them. It’s great to do something special for the whole group, but it’s even more meaningful to do something one on one with a student. It doesn’t have to be profound. I remember giving a girl in our Atlanta Leadership College a necklace and told her to wear it and remember how valuable she is. Just know, when you’re making memories, they may not feel like a big deal at the time, but when you look back on them they really were.
(3) Host the usual ordinances, like communions and baptisms at unusual places or times.
This one is huge! This helps your student’s relationship really become tangible and reachable. We do this at our annual spring retreat. The day that we are leaving the retreat center, we have baptisms in the lake for anyone who gave their life to Jesus, and I have my captains baptize the students of their own small group. It becomes one of the most memorable images of the entire retreat.
(4) Give simple tokens away.
To put something in the hands of your students to help them remember your sharing, will be so beneficial. You have no idea the countless texts and emails I get of someone saying that they looked at a token from years ago, and it reminded them to keep fighting.
Be careful however, not to go over the top with this. Average no more than one token a month to create a spiritual memory or milestone.
(5) Create holiday memories.
The youth ministry that plays together (and prays together), stays together. Do something fun with your youth group. It’s easy to either to do all fun stuff or all serious stuff with your group. However, you can use some leisure time to really be a tipping point in your relationship with your students. This doesn’t have to be a sport or athletics, just something fun that gets your students involved.
(6) Capitalize on retreats and trips to create memories and traditions.
There is something really magical about the ability to get away and eliminate distractions. We do this twice a year with our gang for our fall and spring retreats. While you are gone, do a couple of things that can become traditions for you. One of the things we do with our group, we call a Silence Covenant. It’s just a simple 15 minutes that we individually take to be alone with the Lord to ask ourselves some key questions about where are at in life. Again, I know it sounds really basic, but it has become a staple of our youth ministry during retreats.
(7) Lastly, be sure to share each others’ SORROWS as well as JOYS.
Deeply listen to your students when times are tough. Don’t try to fix everything, just listen. A lot of times, the most memorable moment for your students is when you took time to feel with them, cry with them, and help them turn their pain into purpose. It’s those moments you get to be Jesus with skin on.
I’ve had this blog in my heart for the past few weeks. Why? Well, here at home, we just relaunched our youth ministry. As we prayed, we felt like the Lord was ushering in a new exciting youth ministry season for us. So, a few weeks ago, we unveiled the new name of our youth ministry, changing it from “212” to “The Capitol.” Then a little over a week ago, we had our launch night, and it was a great!
While we changed a lot of things about youth ministry in terms of technique and styles, I remain wholeheartedly committed to the youth ministry core values that have followed me through my 40+ years in youth ministry. So, I just wanted to share them with you, my friends.
1) In the face of our society’s watered-down, half-hearted version of Christianity, The Capitol is unashamedly committed to WHOLEHEARTED LORDSHIP based Christianity.
2) An integral part of The Capitol’s “DNA” is an aggressive commitment to PRAYER as the bedrock of all true ministry.
3) In a world of sarcasm, criticism, and put-down’s, The Capitol is tenaciously committed to focused, purposeful ENCOURAGEMENT, mutual respect, and “FROG KISSING.”
4) The Capitol purposefully creates a culture of TRANSPARENCY, AUTHENTICITY and “beneath-the-waterline” living and ministry.
5) The major vehicle of discipleship and leadership training in The Capitol is our SMALL GROUP (life groups) system. We are not a youth ministry WITH small groups. Instead, we are a youth ministry OF small groups.
6) CREATIVITY and TECHNOLOGICAL relevance are prioritized in The Capitol ministry. Though the message of the Gospel remains unchanging, the METHODS do not. Thus, we embrace drama, lighting, and other forms of creative and technological communication.
7) As a ministry, The Capitol is committed to remaining VISITOR SENSITIVE. While still refusing to compromise biblical principles, we want to both ATTRACT and connect to non-believers while also ministering effectively to committed Christians.
8) We, as The Capitol leadership, celebrate personal TEACHABILITY as a true sign of spiritual maturity. We affirm biblical admonition in the spirit of love, recognizing that “iron sharpens iron.” We abhor BACKBITING, DIVISION, and GOSSIP.
9) A strong part of The Capitol’s “DNA” is participatory, passionate WORSHIP and EVANGELISM. Neither our worship nor our evangelism are “spectator sports.” Our worship style is participatory and our evangelism strategy is one of student-driven “friendship evangelism.”
10) In conclusion, we in The Capitol believe that ATTITUDE is ultimately more significant than ability. This, in all realism of spiritual leadership, we celebrate “CHARACTER” far above “CHARISMA.”
One of the most influential men of this generation passed away this December, leaving behind a message of hope, reconciliation and courage. Obviously, I’m talking about Nelson Mandela.
I’ve always been so intrigued about how a man who lived for 27 years in a prison cell could still create such a massive change in South Africa. As I studied his life, I found something really interesting that I also find in the life of Jesus. So how did Mandela grow to be so powerful from a prison cell? He laid down his life and let others win.
John 10:17-18 says, “The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”
That’s real power. Like Jesus, Mandela made the decision to lay down his life for the lives of others. Not in a cowardly way, but intentionally, to serve people around him.
So, here’s my simple question for you, “How powerful are you?”
If you want to know how powerful you really are, ask yourself these questions:
- How do you serve others around you?
- How often do you say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong?”
- How do you treat your enemies?
Do you want to be great? Do you want to be powerful? Then model the lives of Jesus and Mandela, who loved authentically and served others. It seems so simple, but it’s much harder to live than preach.
So my friends, in a church world that almost wants their own fame as much as Hollywood, learn to voluntarily lay down your own power and serve others. And ultimately, that kind of servant leadership always brings true power and victory.
I love the word “INVICTUS”! It means “unconquerable spirit” and is used as the title to William Henley’s powerful poem written in the 1800s. An amazing movie based on the true story of Nelson Mandela bears the name as well.
As exemplified in the lives of Jesus and Mandela, it is in the willful laying down of our rights that we come to understand what ultimate power and authority truly looks like. Using the timeless movie, poem and Scripture, we communicate this core truth to our students in this issue of the Source. It’s a huge paradigm shift from what today’s youth and young adult culture are hearing. Come make the leap with us.
A few years ago I attended the funeral of Pastor Wendell Smith, the founder of City Church in Seattle and Judah Smith’s father. It was such a great picture of someone who had really made their life count for something. In that moment, I was very much aware of my own mortality. What did I really want my life to stand for? For me, the big deal is that I leave a legacy that truly honors Jesus. So, here are some of the thoughts that I wrote down that day that I wanted to share with you on how to plant an eternal signature.
1. PURPOSE: ”To have a life mission.”
When you know where you’re going, you know the roads that won’t take you there. That’s really what a life mission does. It helps steer us in the right direction. Truth is, until you know who you are, you’re probably trying to be someone else. That’s why I am a woman on a mission to be “Jesus with skin on” to a few people around me.
2. PASSION: ”A desire strong enough to shape your daily choices.”
I think we almost beat the passion out of ourselves by competing with kingdom champions and thinking we’ll never be like them. We compare our youth ministry budgets, number count, and speaking abilities. Then we disqualify ourselves and begin to think that what we’re doing really isn’t making a difference. When you compare yourselves to others, the Enemy will immobilize you. But I don’t think God is looking so much for champions as He is contenders. So don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. The best way to live your life is to spend it on something that will outlive you.
3. TRUSTWORTHINESS: “Other people learn they can have confidence in you.”
Trust is developed with TESTS and TIME. Effectiveness in life and in relationships is more of a slow cooking oven than it is microwave. So live with enough consistent character that people know that you can be trusted over the long-haul. If you change direction too much, the people who follow you will get whiplash.
4. INTEGRITY: “Time and tests prove integrity.”
Without integrity, you become a BOSS, but not a LEADER. Ask yourself a simple but convicting question, “Is there a sense in your life that your actions and words are the same?” In order words, “Are you making your words whole with your actions?” It’s easy to lack integrity in certain areas of our lives, so my prayer is, “Lord, free me of all the disconnected parts.”
5. DARING: ”No success comes from playing it safe.”
It’s not what you do that makes your work sacred, but why you do it. I love telling you that I’ve failed because it also tells you that I’ve tried. I think fear of failure leads to inaction. Get used to failure so that it doesn’t immobilize you. Take some faith risks. That’s my simple challenge. I say to myself often, ships look great in the harbor but that’s not their purpose lived out. When you take that risk and plant that small seed, remind yourself that God already sees the forest!
Thank you for being one of those amazing people that wants to spend their life for something that will ripple into eternity and for living your life in a way that makes Jesus smile.
Some fascinating detective work conducted in a Wisconsin second grade classroom offers insight into how youth leaders can create positive change in young peoples’ lives.
Two counselors sat in the back of a classroom recorded the behavior of the teacher and students. Every 10 seconds, the researchers recorded how many children were out of their seats. In every 20-minute period, at least one child was standing 360 times and the teacher was saying, “Sit down!” seven times. (That probably makes you feel better about any restless kids in your group.)
When the counselors suggested the teacher increase her commands to sit, it had a definite impact on students’ behavior—but in a negative way. Increased commands (27.5 times per 20-minute period) increased the negative behavior 50%. The more the teacher focused on negative behavior, the more constant it became.
Here’s the zinger: Near the end of the study, researchers asked the teacher to totally stop saying, “Sit down!” Instead, she quietly complimented children who stayed in their seats and worked. As a result, their roaming behavior decreased 33 percent, the most positive response of the entire experiment.
So what’s the takeaway for leaders of teenagers? People unconsciously increase whatever behavior gets them attention, even if it’s negative attention. Wise leaders train themselves to “catch” kids doing something positive and reinforce it with authentic encouragement.
Human nature, inside youth ministry and out, gravitates toward things that need improvement. And obviously, there’s a scriptural place for correction and discipline, but we give kids the emotional energy to change when we sincerely help them first know what they’re doing right. As Romans 2:4 says, “God’s kindness leads us to change.”
All of us crave someone who believes in us, focuses on our strengths, and helps unleash the hero in our own lives. So get going—and start “drawing”! Lots of young people need your positive influence.
I remember it well. I had only been in youth ministry for a couple of years. As I finished up my preparation for that week’s message, I was sure it was going to be an incredible night. I sensed that my topic was really relevant, my Scriptural base was clear, and my illustrations were bell-ringers. As I glanced at my notes one final time before I entered the youth area, I inwardly smiled, looking forward to a great evening of authentic spiritual impact.
Fast forward two hours later. I dodged out of our youth gathering as quickly as possible. And all the way home, thoughts of frustration and failure echoed in my head. What had happened? My mind raced to come up with some answers as to where I had missed the mark that night. Then, right as I pulled my car into the driveway, a mental “light bulb” came on. The talk had gone well until I started to close it. Maybe my lack of thinking through my conclusion had helped to create my disappointment that evening. After all, great salesmen train carefully in “making the right close.” I turned the car off and sat thinking in the garage for another minute. Maybe I was on to something simple but significant in the realm of communicating with teenagers.
Let me share a few specifics that have become clear to me after giving several thousand talks to teenagers. The concepts may not be profound; but I think they are strategic whether you are communicating to five teenagers or 5,000.
1) Above everything else, take a few minutes each week to think through the specifics of how you are going to close out your evening’s talk. It’s a reflection of the old quote, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail.” This means that you mentally go over some of the components I will list below. Don’t just assume that things will fall into place as you wrap up your sharing. Plan your closing. Take time to decide what aspects of communication you are going to use to create an atmosphere of engagement and response.
2) Determine specifically what your “ask” is. In other words, what specific response are you desiring from your talk? The unspoken question in every teenager’s mind as you communicate is “So what?” That’s why you need to be able to clearly articulate your “ask.” Maybe you’ve talked on family issues and you conclude something like this: “I think several of us are honestly wanting to change our attitude at home. It would be great if you take a few minutes tonight to ask the Lord for His help on that.”
Or maybe your youth service was a “Heroes Night” like one we hosted recently. Your closing “ask” could be something like, “We’ve had a great night talking about what makes a hero and honoring some of our own. But as we wrap things up tonight, I think lots of us would like to ask for the Lord’s help in becoming a hero ourselves to someone in our own world. If that’s you, would you raise your hand so we can pray for each other specifically? Your raised hand is saying, ‘I want to be God’s kind of hero to someone in my everyday life.’”
3) Don’t underestimate the power of the right music during your closing. Granted, too much dependency upon music can become manipulation or hype. But heaven will be full of music, so it has a lot of spiritual impact when chosen correctly right here on earth. You don’t have to have an incredible worship band to pull this off. Just pre-think one song (usually slow) that helps to create the atmosphere you desire. Then cue up your CD player and hit “repeat.” Simple as it sounds, even repeating one appropriate recorded song over and over can be powerful. Obviously, if you can use live music, it is even better. Discuss before the service with your head musician your topic and talk over possible choruses for the end. Never allow your worship leader to “punt.”
4) Watch your wording as you close out your night. Avoid phrases that produce guilt, defensiveness, or alienation. Use language like “we” instead of the finger-pointing “you.” Include inclusive phrases like, “I think we all struggle with this from time to time” or “I think it’s so cool that you’re mature enough to be honest on this whole topic.” Make sure that your choice of words makes it honorable to honestly respond.
5) Avoid high-pitched emotions. Just as quickly as that emotion melts, so also will the resolve to follow through.
6) Consider a carefully-chosen story or personal experience to help close out the night. Jesus was a parable-teller and built much of His communication around the power of a story. So I often use a relevant story to help close-out the evening. It helps cement the focus of the evening and open up hearts to an authentic response.
Granted, there is no right or wrong way to close one of your youth talks. But whatever your theological background, just take a few minutes when you communicate to think through your closing. Real estate and insurance agents sure do when they make their presentations. And your “Product” is infinitely more important.
I gave the sign a position of honor in one of my earliest youth ministry offices. The words still echo in my head often:
“If you compare and compete, you’ll live in defeat.”
You would think after four decades in exciting, full-time youth ministry that I wouldn’t deal with those mind games any more. But in all honesty, I think we all struggle with painful comparison and competition occasionally in our lives. After all, we live in America where only “gold medal winners” are trumpeted. Unfortunately, part of the “comparison and competition game” spills over into even the youth ministry trenches.
So since Dr. Phil isn’t anywhere around, let me share some of the ways I’ve dealt with this “dreaded duo” in my own life and youth ministry:
1) Prioritize the art of “do it yourself encouragement” in your personal life. Remember poor old King David in the Old Testament when his family, houses, and cattle were destroyed by enemy troops? David’s response? The Scripture simply reads, “And David encouraged himself in the Lord.”
For me, “do it yourself encouragement” involves controlling my thought life and choosing to focus on the positives around me, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Trust me, it’s easier to write about that choice than to practice it. But the voices inside your own head will always be your greatest source of youth ministry encouragement or youth ministry defeat.
2) “Murder” the attitude of competition in your life by sending an encouraging note or email to a person you secretly compete with in your own mind. I don’t know how it works, but I promise that it does. It probably pivots around the scriptural principle of, “If you want to be the greatest in the kingdom, learn to be the least.” Life in God’s kingdom often comes through purposeful death to parts of our human self-centeredness. So “murder” part of the competition in your life by being encouraging to someone who stirs that very sense of competition up in you.
3) Clarify what “rabbit” you want your life to chase. You know the principle: “If you chase two rabbits, both of them will get away.” And in like manner, youth ministry has lots of different facets (rabbits). So take some time to determine how God has wired you up and what “youth ministry rabbits” you are going to most prioritize. What appears as success for others in youth ministry is probably not going to be God’s version of success for you.
Maybe your “rabbit” involves leadership development, one-on-one discipleship, worship, evangelism, or reaching at-risk kids. Granted, youth ministry demands that we minister in all of these areas. But if God has wired you to be a one-on-one discipler, youth ministry success is probably not going to involve building a huge group numerically. Without coming to terms with this, it is easy to look across town at larger youth group and internally feel like you’re not cutting it.
4) Remind yourself often that you “play for an audience of One.” Most of us wouldn’t worry so much about what others think about us if we realized how little they really do! So I often remind myself that if I’m doing my very best to please the Lord, everything else is going to eventually come into line.
When I was in middle school, I had a short-lived career as a track star. I even made it to State Finals. (Impressed, aren’t you?) At the state championship race, there were thousands of voices lined up along the cross country path to cheer us on. But I quickly learned to tune out all of their voices and listen for only one voice that I wanted desperately to please. That, of course, was my coach.
So as my run in youth ministry has progressed, the “voices” have often become noisy and confusing. Their shouts have brought the dreaded duo of “comparison and competition” to the forefront on countless occasions. But as I’ve matured in youth ministry, I’ve learned to tell myself often, “I’m running this race for an audience of One.” And borrowing from God’s words to His Son, I choose to believe the Father is saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”
One of the questions I’m asked most often after nearly four exciting decades in full-time youth ministry is, “How do you keep your love for teenagers fresh and genuine?” That’s a great question. Truthfully, it’s a battle that needs to stay front-burner in my heart. Without that, I’m sure authentic, fresh love would be a thing of the past and emotional leftovers would be my reality. After this many years in youth ministry, I’ve heard almost every imaginable story, counseled almost every imaginable problem, and cried through almost every imaginable tragedy. Solomon was really right when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So with that in mind, how DO you keep teenagers and your love for them fresh and real, especially after you’ve been in youth ministry for a few years?
My mind races back (a few centuries, it seems) to my college days. I was on a tour bus returning from a college ministry tour. Even as a senior in college training for full-time service, I was beginning to feel the drain of ministry. Staring out the bus window, I mumbled to the Lord, “How do I keep my love for people fresh? I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to do this thing long haul.”
Almost immediately, a Scripture I had read earlier that morning from Matthew jumped back into my mind. “And Jesus looked upon the multitudes of people and saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Then His heart was moved with compassion.”
It was one of those Holy Spirit “bump moments” we all occasionally have. “OK, Lord.” I thought to myself. “So Your motivation factor came from compassion. That’s what ‘moved You.’ But how do I realistically pursue that kind of compassion? I hear a lot of people talk about it. But I don’t see much long haul fruit of it in ministry that spans the years.”
I’ve had only few times in my walk with Christ when I’ve experienced a supernatural “Thus sayeth the Lord.” (Sorry if you’re so spiritual that you’ve had lots of them. Unfortunately, most of mine are straight from the Word and pretty non-glamorous.) But nearly 40 years later from that morning on the tour bus, I really believe that what happened next was one of those moments. The word “compassion” divided mentally in my mind into four smaller words and, with no effort on my own, I clearly saw what the Lord was trying to speak to me.
“Compassion” broke into “Come” and then “pass it on.” Jesus gently tutored me that morning in the art of authentic, Christ-like loving. “Come to Me first,” He softly prompted, “and through your times alone with Me, drink in of My love and My care for people. Just make sure you never get too busy to consistently practice the ‘Come to Me’ stage.”
“Then for the rest of your life, pass THAT LOVE on.” My mind heard His steady, Fathering voice continue, “All other sources of love will be shallow and short-lived. But if you keep coming back to Me each day to allow Me to fill you with My love, the long haul will be marked by My consistent love flowing out of you.”
Granted, there have been countless times in these past years in youth ministry when I have violated the “Come to Me” stage and found myself seriously depleted and drained. Human love, at its very best, is short-lived against the backdrop of the youth culture we serve each day. But this simple truth has helped to keep my priorities aligned and my “emotional tank” from crashing on empty.
When the books are closed one day on my run in youth ministry, I doubt that many people will remember the size of my youth groups or many of the main points from my messages. But if the Lord smiles on me, maybe a few people will remember that I was a person who sincerely, authentically loved. If that happens, I think both Jesus and I will be smiling.