After 20 years of working with students you learn a thing or two. At least I hope I've learned a thing or two. After all the message prep, study, writting, rewritting, teaching, preaching, discipling, and praying there are three simple messages that I want students to know and remember. Aside from all the series, topics, and crazy intense discussions, I believe we can boil everything down to 3 simple lessons; that we LOVE GOD, LOVE JESUS, and LOVE EACH OTHER.
Simple? Yes, I know.
Obvious? Maybe. But maybe not.
Lately, I have been thinking alot of about what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. What is it that the Bible teaches the most about how we are to live? What themes or principles are constantly reoccurring in what God wants, in what Jesus teaches, and in how we are commanded to be? In just about every case you can bring it back to these three things, to LOVE GOD, to LOVE JESUS, and to LOVE EACH OTHER.
These are the themes that I find myself most wanting to practice in my life, as well as being the top three themes I want to teaching to my family and my church. But as I think about these themes and the simplicity of each one, I often wonder if we skip over teaching them because it's just assumed that we know them. Sometimes I think we might take for granted that our student know and practice these 3 topics. But I have learned never to take anything for granted, especially when in comes to students and expecting them to know what God requires.
Along with all that we teach our students, whether it comes from up front, in small group discipleship, or in one-on-one discipleship, these three things must be reinforced every opportunity ou have.
1. LOVE GOD.
No brainer, right? Our students could probably quote back to us, Matthew 22:37 & 38. We are to love God with our heart, mind and soul. Ask your students, how are we to love God, some of them might actually say, Love God with heart, mind and soul. But it's another question to ask them, What does it look like in your every day life for you love God? Or even better, let's ask it the way Rick Lawrence, author of The Jesus Centered Youth Ministry. He suggests that we ask such questions by way of the surprise, the specific and the personal. So we might say, "If you were to open up your weekly calendar, at what points during the day, and in what ways might you demostrate your love for Go? (Okay, Rick might not ask it this way because I have 2 questions in one.) But you get the point, right?
Tell our students to love God is great. But what are we doing to making that statement something thats tangible in their lives?
It's what I did for years; poured into the lives of students and families September through June. I was 'ON', almost all the time. Thinking, dreaming, eating, breathing, living student ministry. It was my calling; my life. And I loved it. I really did.
Nothing excited me more that our September kick-offs! We would welcome the students back with huge celebration. Then for the following 9 months it was game on. But when Memorial Day came, so did the rest. There is great advantage to the summer break. Advantages that lead to longer lasting, stronger youth ministries and youth workers. As I begin this summer, I have had to remind myself of some of these advantages. But first a little back story.
So we are in year three of our church. It's been another year of ups and downs, but we've seen some positive movement with our students. As we came to the end of April, we we're having a lot of fun. Our studies were good. Students were engaging. It was fun to teach and watch them grow. But we were coming to the end of our school year and that left a question; Do we push on and keep the momentum going or do we break for the summer?
Now in some larger churches, this question isn't even on a radar, anywhere. Most larger church run programming year round. But for the smaller church, summer is often a time off. As I considered the option for our little band of students, I thought that it might serve us well to go through the summer. So I started working on a summer calendar and teaching schedule. I lined up activities (tentatively), looked into purchasing and downloading the material for Groups', Jesus-Centered Life, from their LIVE curriculum, and started talking to leaders and students about going through the summer. But with only 2 weeks into our summer calendar I am remembering why taking the summer is not such a bad thing. In fact, taking the summer off can be a good thing. A very good thing.
Five Reasons why I'm taking the summer off.
1. I needed a break.
As I said earlier, September through May is game on. For 9 months, the student ministry in light-speed. Activities, weekend worship, trips, retreats, concerts, attending school functions, small groups, counseling, conferences, teaching, training leaders, training student leaders; there's a lot going on. During the school year, the student ministry receives a pretty high priority. It's not the top priority, but it's up there because of the nature of working with students.
But summer has always been a season of rest. And quite frankly, by the time the end of the school year rolls around, many of us in student ministry are in need of a little rest. So for me, most of June, July, and August were months that represented a time of rest. It was an opportunity to slow down a bit. Maybe sleep in a little more, have shorter office hours, taking thing at a more relaxed paced. Now I will say, this only works if you church follows the same formating. I have been blessed to serve in mid-sized churches that took the summer off. No Sunday school, modified summer service times, etc. So taking the summer and shutting down, was part of the programming.
There were a couple summers where I did try to plan a calendar with regular student ministry events, to try and keep things going. But never worked out. In fact, I'll never forget my one lead pastor calling me into his office and telling, stop planning summer activities. He told me, the summer break was something that they took as part of their program strategy. The summer was a season of rest. It was a break for the volunteers and ministry leaders. He simply said, work hard during the school year, and take the time in the summer for you. They were wise words. It was good to take a break.
2. I needed to reconnect with my family.
Running full tilt for 9 months in student ministry often leads to a huge amount of time away from the family. When the kids were younger, my family would often join us for many of the youth ministry activities. It was fun. And the students usually went crazy having the little ones around. But as the kids and our family grew, it wasn't always practical. So as I did more and more with the growing student ministry, my growing family did less and less. As husband and wife, we came to an understanding about time usage in ministry. Fortunately, great flexiblity was given to us as staff members, so we were able to keep a balance. But September through May was about ministry. However, June through mid-August was about family.
The summer break gave us considerable time as a family to reconnect and do things that strengthened and build us up. Vacation, weekend trips to visit family, shorter office hours, flexibility with how ministry in the summer could look, all of these gave us time as a family to be a family.
3. I needed time for me.
It might sound selfish at first, but there is a some real truth and help in realizing that YOU need to take time for YOU. Remember that pastor who told me to stop planning summer activities? One of the other reasons for taking the summer off was for personal growth. Summer is a great time to reconnect with God. At the slower pace of summer, you can create the time to do something more than just your regular personal devotions and study. Take a summer seminary class. Read those books you bought at that last conference that are still sitting in your "To Read" pile. Focus on working on a skill set that you've been wanting to improve upon. Take a mini -sabatical and get away for a couple of days to just be with God!
Summer is a time for you to be filled up again. All school year long you have poured yourself out into your students. And come September, you will again be expected to pour yourself our again. But that won't happen unless, you find a way to fill up.
4. I needed a change in what ministry looked like.
For most of us, ministry can be a trap. Sometimes we get all wrapped up in the things that need to get done each week and we forget how to connect with our students and leaders. It's that busyness of ministry business, and if we're not careful, it can poison our ministry. Summer offers us a break from the norm, to do something a little different. For me, summer was always a time to connect with student beyond the regular programming of ministry.
Now, this doesn't mean that I never connected with student during the school year, I did. But it was often less frequent than what I would have like. Sometimes, the school calendar of students is just as busy as our ministry calendar. Summer is a time to get with those students who you weren't able to spend time with during the school year.
I found for me, summer was an ideal time to meet with student for lunch, or to have a handful of student over to the house for a cook out. It gave opportunities to spend time with that one student that you saw something thing, and you want to do something more with. So you have a one-on-one bible study, or read through a book with them. You see, while the regular ministry stops, ministry it's does not. You are still a discipler called to disciple. The summer gives you time to do it a little differently.
5. I needed time to get perspective for the coming school year.
One of the great advantages to taking the summer off is that it gives you time to pray and dream about the coming season of ministry. One of the things that I did with my students was have them complete a year end evaluation. We asked the student to complete a little survery that asked them to share what made the year for them. Whether it was a teaching series, and event, a special speaker, we wanted to know what was working and what wasn't. Then over the summer, I would read through the surveys and use them to evalute the ministry. We would also ask them to share things that they were either struggling with or things they wanted to know more about.
Over the summer, I would lay these things before the Lord, and seek direction for the new year. These months afforded me the time to sit and pray and dream for the ministry. By mid August, I was ready to begin firing up the engines again.
Not everyone in student ministry can "take the summer off." And while I recognize the advantages as they helped me, I also realize that there are great advantages to keeping the ministry going through the summer. So no way am I suggestign that one is better than the other, I simply have found the benefits as they have worked for me. Will I ever run a year round programming? I don't know. It would most likely depend on the culture of the church and how it operates year round. But for now, I'm taking the summer off. Yes, I will be changing that summer calendar I put together in April and instead of forcing a program to work, I am going to work at simply being this summer!
What about you? Do you take the summer off, kinda'? What does that look like for you? What advantages have you found? Or, do you run your ministry year round? Tells us about it. Leave you comments below!
And thanks for reading!
I remember my very first NYWC, 1999, Cincinnati, OH. I had just accepted my first full-time call as a youth worker, and my first assignment at the church was attending the fall convention.
So my wife and I booked the hotel, registered with NYWC, and reserved a rental car. We left our 15 month old with some new friends from the church, and we, along with our 4 month old (yes we had 2 within 15 months of each other...) made our way to our first convention.
I remember as we drove having all sorts of emotions. As a young (only 24 at the time) youth worker, I was sooo excited to be working in a church. I couldn't wait to get started, pour into my new students, watching them grow in faith, and expereincing all that God has for them and us. We arrived at the hotel, checked in, and looked forward to the convention kick off which would take place the next day. Little did I know at the time, my life was about to be changed.
That first year opened my eyes to something way bigger then I ever thought. God had rocked my world. Quite honestly, and still today, when I am with my friends at NYWC, I feel like I am with family. It didn't take long for me to look around and see, here is where I belong. Not only did these people dress like me and talked like me, had a passion for students like me, and heart for God like me. And for the first time, I knew that what God had called me to do was right where I was! I was a youth pastor.
As I returned to NYWC in the many years that followed, there was always a warm sense of comfort and familiarity. It had become home. And this was my family. And it didn't matter what was different or how NYWC might have changed, NYWC was still NYWC.
In my later years, I started serving as a volunteer with the convention. I had accumilated almost 10 years of ministry expereince and was looking to do something different. Far from being an expert, yet wanting to give something back, being a volunteer gave me the opportunity to serve youth workers. I was able to take a back seat and watch as youth workers poured into convention centers, hungry for wisdom, broken from a difficult ministry, and desiring to be better at what they were called to do. Volunteering is grunt work. Setting up, tearing down, moving this, moving that, running here, running there, and I loved it. New friendships were formed as my YM family grew larger. And oh the conversations we would have. Thinking, talking, and dreaming youth ministry. It was stimulating and invigorating. I was alive!
Then there were those moments. Few, but they were there. Moments to love on another youth worker. Moments of listening to their stories, praying through tears for them. Moments to smile and say, "Welcome home." That's when I fully understood the purpose of NYWC.
You see, as much as we would like to believe it, the reality is, church work is hard. Youth ministry in particular is extremely difficult. And there are a great many that fall under the pressures and difficulties of ministry. Sometimes the fall is simply emotional and spiritual as they burn out due to being overworked and under appreciated. Other times, the fall comes with higher costs, as the brokeness of sin touches a little too close to the office. Ministry is hard. And we in ministry too often take the hits and we keep going, all while dying a little more inside with each attack.
For many, NYWC is a place of love, grace, mercy, and healing. It's a place with we can get away from the hurt and the pain, the gossips and back-stabbers, and we rest again in the arms of our Lord and Savior. NYWC exists not just to provide training and resources, or to sell you the latest book or newest programming package. If you look carefully at the heart of NYWC what you will find is a desire to simply love youth worker where they are for who they are. And that is why I love the National Youth Workers Convention. More than a convention, it's a hospital. And I don't ever want to miss out on an opportunity to be the smiling face that says, "You are safe here. You are loved here. You are at home here. Come in and find rest."
This fall, NYWC will host it's two conventions, San Diego CA from October 8-11, and Louisville, KY from November 19-22, 2015. I would like to invite you to come and join us one of these weekend conventions. Whether ministry is good, and you're loving life and the call... Or if ministry has been difficult, and you're wondering is it really worth it to keep going... I believe that God will less you and your time here. So come, reconnect through powerful, moving worship. Be renewed as the Spirit speaks the words of life back into your soul. And remember that you're not in this alone, you still of Jesus in your corner!
Me? I'm hoping and planning to return this fall as a volunteer, welcoming and loving youth workers just like you in Louisville, KY, in November! I sure hope to see YOU there!
As a youth pastor, I am always on the look out for new and creative ways to engage students. I like trying new things. And I really like when I can combine some of my favorites things with student ministry.
Recently, we moved our student ministry to our local McDonald's for an evening of dinner and fun! The idea came as I sat in the McDonald's parking lot, waiting to pick up my son after his shift. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sky was blue and cloudless. The tempertures were just right. And the restaurants outdoor dinning area offered a certain separation from the regular business of customers and food sales. It would be the perfect place to host one of our weekly gatherings.
That week I reached out to the manager, who is also a friend of mine, and asked if our student ministry could take over the outdoor dinning area one Sunday night for our meeting. I explained that we would have between 15 and 20 adults and students. Each would be told to brings some money for dinner. Then we would eat, play some games, and have some fun. Being outside would allow us to keep the noise and commotion at a distance, thus not disturbing customers. It would be a win for both sides. We would have a great place to meet, and for the manager, she would be able to pick up some sales during our time there. (We meet on Sunday nights, a normally slow sales night.) She agreed, so we booked and promoted the night.
The day of the event came and we had a great time. We saw just a few more than 20. Everyone ordered. Everyone ate. And everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. We even had a few first time visitors! The only problem we encountered was that it ended up pouring right as we were about to get started. No worries though, we moved everything inside.
We let the students eat and hang out around the tables. It was great to watch the dynamics of students as they simply enjoyed being together. After eating we played a little McDonald's trivia, blended up a Happy Meal, and pounded ice cream cones as fast as possible. Then we wrapped it all up with a short challenge to think about how they would spend their summer. (Now each of these will be posted elsewhere on the blog. When they are, I will add links so you can see what we actually did.) But aside from the food and fun, I discovered that an event like this might have a greater impact than I first realized.
What if Our Ministry Was More Public?
One of the mistakes I think we sometimes make in ministry is that we or to comfortable with our buildings. I remember when I started working as a youth worker, I like many, met in whatever available Sunday school classroom there was at the church. When in churches with fellowship space, or even a gym-like space, we did large room games there, before heading to the classroom. There we'ren't always comfy sofas (used or otherwise), fooseball tables, flatscreen TV or video gaming systems, or anything like we see now. We worked with what we had. And when the church wasn't available or big enough, we had to relocate to homes and backyards, parks or other public locations. But as student ministry grew from what we did with a handful of church kids to the mega-ministry models of outreach, discipleship, and multiplication, those humble little classrooms became student-dedicated santuary's of choas and fun. For those of us who have been around long enough, being given dedicated ministry space was a real accomplishment. But what I often wonder now is, have we become so comfortable with our dedicated space that we have forgotten what it was like to be creative and to be public.
Before dedicated space, we had to make do, be creative, and sometimes meet elsewhere. We had to sometimes think out of the box, maybe taking our ministry to a public space, or at the very least, flooding a neighborhood with cars and teenagers. Whether it was a park or a backyard, or even a driveway and street lined with vehicles, people knew something was going on. It was a visible hint that people had gathered. it was an opportunity to go to where the people were. But with our own dedicated space, I think we find it easier to simply stay put. We have what we need here in the space, so why go elsewhere? We're comfortable here. We know and can expect what will happen. It's a sort of safety net. And when we're comfortable, well, ministry is comfortable, right? All we have to do is get the students to come to us! Thence the eye candy that some of our spaces contain. (And I have had and I have seem some amazing 'Student Ministry" spaces. What teen wouldn't want to come?!)
But when I think about Jesus, his ministry took him to where the people were. Yeah, I know that we know that, but follow me here. As I sat there in the McDonald's watching the student eat, talk and laugh, I thought, what will the people (other customers) see? Then as we played games, drank our blended Happy Meal, talked about Jesus, and prayed openly, what would people (the customers) think? These weren't questions of fear, like, oh my goodies, I hope people don't see us praying together... but instead, my questions were more, if someone wasn't involved in a church, or didn't know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and the watched us, would they wonder what we were all about?
Then I thought, okay, maybe having students jug a Happy Meal smoothie isn't the best example of the church...
You see, Jesus' ministry wasn't centered on a location. He didn't have a dedicated space to meet. He went to where people gathered and he made himself known. I don't think we do that as much today. We go to our buildings and we expect people/students to come to us. Oh sure we go out to sporting events and school functions and make ourselves visible in the community. And maybe even we involve ourselves with what's happening around us as coaches, or volunteers, or as the guy who goes to Starbucks every Wednesday, whips out his bibles and commentaries and studies and preps to teach, all while sitting there with earpods in ears and nose in book. But when does the community see the body of Christ gathering as the body of Christ to to celebrate, worship, and be in awe of our Creator?
As I sat there, watching my students, I found myself glancing around to the few customers who had come into the store while we were there, and wondered, how can we make ourselves more public like Jesus did? How can we go to where the people are and simply be with them. No hokey events or outreach gimmicks, you know the kind that come with a commercial for the church at the end.
Now I'm not championing that we abandon our youth buildings and rooms to meet every week in a different public location. I'm simply asking the question, what would it look like for us to take our ministries to a place where others can watch, hear, maybe even get involved? Places where others can see that we're not the church that hates, and condemns, and judges, but instead sees that we are loving and welcoming, and that we enjoy having a good time.
What would it look like for your ministry to schedule a handful of events that moved you to a place where the public was given the opportunity to simply observe you? What potential conversations might you have with your students and those watching?
Our night to McDonald's was great. And as I continue to evaluate what we did, I will be thinking about what we can do next time that might allow us to engage the public just a little more.