Mentoring Casts a Long Shadow

Melissa was the quietest girl in my group. She had dark hair and beautiful blue eyes. Once her grandma, who picked her up and brought her to our church each week, pulled me aside in the hallway and asked, “Could you keep a special eye on Melissa? Things are really rough at home right now.”

Melissa wasn’t one of the girls who would run up and give me a hug when I walked in the room. She wasn’t bouncing up and down, just dying to tell me about the prank they had just played on the boys. Melissa would just give me a shy smile. She hung back. She didn’t say much during our discussion and prayer time.

But in her eyes I saw a hunger for more. She was hurting. She was looking for hope.

By spring, the girls in my group had earned enough points (by memorizing verses, doing their quiet time sheets, and attending regularly) for a party at my house.  We decided to have an Orange Party—which meant we would wear orange clothes, eat orange food, and do an orange scavenger hunt in my neighborhood.

After an orange-filled afternoon, I pulled the girls into a huddle on the floor in my basement, and told them the story of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again. It wasn’t the first time I had told it. It wasn’t the first time they had heard it. But for two girls, it was the first time the story overlapped with their stories.

Melissa was one of those girls. I remember the sweet intensity of her prayer, as she asked Jesus to save her from her sin and be her Lord. And I remember her smile afterward—those big blue eyes sparkling.

I moved away shortly after this, and I didn’t hear from Melissa for about fifteen years. Then, last summer, she sent me a message via facebook.

Melissa was a young mom now. Life hadn’t been easy. She was expecting her third baby, and she wasn’t married. And even though she hadn’t made the best choices, she wanted to come back to God. She was reaching out to me because she knew I could help. And it’s been my great delight to do so!

As we’ve reconnected, I’ve silently wondered why Melissa thought to reach out to me. We live in different states now. We probably wouldn’t have recognized each other on the street. And there probably are Christians whose paths cross with Melissa’s.

I’ve thought about several other girls, too, who have reconnected with me over the years. One girl was in my cabin at a summer camp. Eight years after I led her to Jesus at camp, she was struggling with suicidal thoughts. So she looked up my address and wrote me a letter, asking me to pray.

Another girl contacted me via facebook, just after she got married. She said that she had just packed the little book mark I gave her in middle school. The bookmark’s glow-in-the-dark cross didn’t glow anymore, but it had been on her nightstand for years, reminding her of the things I had taught her about God. She said, “If you hadn’t been there… I really think my life could have gone another way.” She just wanted to write and say thanks.

To each of these girls, I somehow represented a time that their eyes were opened to Jesus. I’m the one who got to put their hands in His.

This is what youth ministry is all about! Putting their hands in His. We only have a few moments to walk with them. Pretty soon, they’ll be walking away from our church, our youth ministry, our influence. Will they walk with Jesus?

lf we never ask that question, I doubt whether mentoring will truly happen. If we don’t dream about who are kids are becoming and where they are going in life, we’ll be content to eat orange food, wear orange clothes, and call it a day of youth ministry.

But on the other hand, true mentoring casts a long shadow. When we care enough to cross over into our kids’ lives, we can make a difference that extends into the coming decades and ultimately crosses into eternity. We can bring little blue eyed girls like Melissa with us to heaven.


Shannon Popkin bio pic

Shannon Popkin is so thankful for the 10+ years that she got to serve in various capacities of youth ministry. Nowadays, she focuses on ministering to the three kids who constantly fill both her laundry baskets with dirty clothes, and her heart with joy. Shannon and her husband Ken have been married for almost eighteen years, and they are so thankful for the support they get from Ada Bible’s Lifeline (youth group) in raising their kids to know and love God.
As a writer and speaker, Shannon loves to encourage women to put their hope in God. Check out her blog, Tiny Paragraphs, at
photo credited to iamdogjunkie via Flickr

Snow Camp Recap

A few weekends ago was our snow camp.  We took 11 charter buses to Timberwolf Lake Camp.  Our staff and volunteers pulled together to put on an amazing camp.  I’m very proud of the Lifeline team.  Here are some highlights.

Snow Camp 2014 RECAP from LifeLine Student Ministries on Vimeo.


We themed our camp around the Olympics and it was pretty awesome.  Here’s one of your hosts, “Rob Costas.”

Rob Costas


And here’s our torch relay video…

Snow Camp Intro | Torch Relay from LifeLine Student Ministries on Vimeo.

How to Build Faith in Kids

What’s the first step in building faith in a student or a child?  Is it presenting the Gospel?  Is it getting them in the Bible?  Is it mentoring them?  What is it?  Recently, I spent a few hours with Chap Clark in a SYMC breakout session and he helped refine what I view as the foundation of discipleship.



What does it mean to be a mature disciple of Jesus?  The simple answer is that I’m mature when I trust Jesus with everything.  I trust Him with my money.  I trust Him with my media choices.  I trust Him in the way I treat my wife.  Personally, I think maturity is as simple as trust.

If this is true, teaching another person to follow Jesus is as simple as teaching them to trust Jesus in every area of their life, one step at a time.

Because of this, the foundation of discipleship is trust. How do children and adolescents learn this?  How do they decide to trust someone they can’t see?  They subconsciously decide whether Jesus is trustworthy based on how the people of Jesus treat them.



So, what’s the first step in building faith in another person?  It’s safety.  As a parent, forging a safe relationship is crucial to faith development.  In children’s ministry, creating and maintaining a safe environment is paramount.  As a small group leader or youth worker, using safe language is foundational.

How do I know this is true?  This reality is best illustrated with fathers.  What’s your relationship with your dad like?  If your dad is a safe and trustworthy person I would bet you’ve learned to trust Jesus.  If your dad was a cruel person, I imagine there is a good chance you struggle with accepting the goodness of God.  If your dad was never quite satisfied with your accomplishments or talents there is a good chance you never feel good enough for God.   You constantly wrestle with whether or not God likes you.  If your dad was absent or abandoned your family, you probably have moments in which you wonder whether or not God truly cares or if He is there at all.  We learn about Jesus from the people who profess to follow Jesus

What does it mean to be safe?  Safety is communicated in the way we talk to kids, particularly when they fail.  Safety is communicated in the way we joke around with kids.  Is it funny for everyone or is it biting?  Safety is communicated by the look on our face like when a kid confesses a failure.  Safety is communicating in the way we talk about people we disagree with.



If you are a parent, small group leader or youth worker, you are in a position of tremendous power.  You are teaching children and adolescents what God is like.  But, it isn’t your bible stories, sermons and programs as much as it is your words, your reactions and attitudes.  Will they learn to trust God?  Do they trust you?  Until they develop abstract thinking skills, the question is as simple as that.  Safety is our number one priority.


photo credited to Adrian Ruiz via Flickr

How to Porn Proof Your Kids

I thought I would follow up my last post with advice for parents on how to protect our kids from porn.  Well, I hate to admit it but the title of this post is a lie.  You can’t.

What I mean is that we live in a society in which kids will see pornography.  It’s  heart-breaking but it’s the truth.  I see pornography nearly every time I drive down the highway.  There are women in their underwear on giant signs next to the highway.  Nearly every time I watch a football game with my kids in the room I am forced to dive for the remote and frantically punch buttons until the Victoria’s Secret commercial disappears. Just the other day my son sprinted down the driveway from the mailbox waving a catalog featuring a woman in a bra and undies on the back cover.

This is what I mean.  Even if you protect your kids in every possible way, encapsulating them in  porn proof bubble wrap, it will somehow find them–probably on the back cover of some benign department store catalog.  I guess we can never go shopping again.

In my experience, parents often fall into one of two different camps when it comes to pornography.  The first camp essentially doesn’t try.  Kids will be kids.  They’ll figure it out.  I survived, so will they.  The problem with this approach is that the pervasiveness of pornography in our culture is fundamentally different from anything we have ever seen.  When I was a kid pornography existed but it lived in VHS tapes, magazines and grimy mechanic shop pin ups.

My point is that back in the day you had to go looking for porn and take risky steps to secure it.  There was always the possibility that your mom would find the magazine.  Today, pornography lives in a tiny device that fits in your pocket.  It’s easy to hide and easier yet to cover your tracks.  Don’t worry about hiding the dirty magazine under your bed, just delete your search history.

In addition, younger and younger kids are becoming addicted to pornography because it is so easily accessible.  For many in my generation, we saw pornography a handful of times during childhood and it deeply affected the way we think about the opposite sex and sexuality in general.  Many kids these days are looking at pornography daily.  Research is beginning to show how massively destructive this immersion is to a developing mind.  It’s scary stuff.

The second camp is the iron curtain of culture.  Parents become so panicked about pornography that they basically unplug and retreat to the woods.  While I applaud their zealousness, I don’t believe this is the answer.  After all, Jesus did call us to be “in the world but not of it.”  We can’t fight for the kingdom if we refuse to interact with culture.

Instead of throwing up our hands or running to the woods we need a different approach.  We need to teach our kids wisdom.  They need to learn to choose the right paths on their own.  This is why I suggest internet filters for young kids but not for older kids.  I can hear you shouting at me.  Calm down and let me finish.  Around 7th or 8th grade I recommend switching from internet filters to accountability software.  The point is dialogue.  Listen, I’ve worked with teenagers for a long time now.   Your kids will see pornography.  Sadly, it’s inevitable.  The question is, what are they going to do when they see it?  Better yet, what will you do when they see it?

When my son stumbles on pornography, I will know because I’ll receive a monthly email outlining any sketchy websites he visited on one of my computers or his phone.  Yes, this technology exists.  We live in the future.  When this happens, we’ll go for a walk.  I’ll tell him that he isn’t the only one tempted to look at porn.  A woman’s body is basically the most beautiful thing in all of creation and we can’t help but be drawn to it.  But, we’ll talk about what porn did to my mind.  We’ll talk about the value of women.  We’ll talk about God’s design for sex and I’ll help him visualize the future he wants.  We’re create boundaries and expectations and move forward.  This is what I mean by dialogue. If I keep filters on the internet I’ll never catch him and perhaps more importantly, when he moves out of my house we won’t know how to handle the “real” internet.

So, when your kid stumbles on porn what will you do?  What’s your plan?

If you’re interested, here are the tools I mentioned.

X3watch is an accountability software

Mobicip is a browser filter for younger kids.


photo credited to Simon Yeo via Flickr

The Only Way to Defeat Porn

Back in the day I attended a conservative Christian college–one of those colleges that you only apply to if you want to be a pastor, missionary, play the organ or marry someone who does.  It was elite.  The average incoming GPA of a freshman student when I graduated was 3.9.  It was like the Hogwarts of ministry except that Harry Potter was obviously out of bounds, what, with that devilish magic and all.

Anyway, I loved it.  I remember looking out from my chapel seat overlooking a crowd of a thousand future leaders thinking, “These people are going to change the world.  This is army.  These people are going to take Jesus to the darkest of places.”  And they did.  My classmates planted churches in the most forsaken places on earth.  They became undercover missionaries in closed Islamic countries.  They flew missionary planes  into remote jungle outposts and they’ve planted and led churches all over the world.  My classmates were and are an extraordinary group of men and women.  And yet, they are incredibly ordinary and broken–just like you and me.

My junior year I was somehow approved to be an RA.  To be honest, I was probably the worst RA ever to patrol the halls of my storied dorm.  But, my new position exposed me to privileged information.  I discovered early in the fall semester that our dorm had a massive problem…pornography.  As it turns out, the facilities staff was finding an alarming amount of pornographic material in the garbage.  I suppose it was a good thing that it was in the trash but it’s very presence exposed a problem.  Many of us who were training to be the future leaders of the church were struggling with varying degrees of porn addiction.

The thought of pastors, missionaries and other ministry leaders hiding in the dark with unseen porn addictions terrified me.  This insidious monster would destroy what God was planning for our generation of leaders.  Before we took Jesus to the darkest of places in the world we needed to take him to the darkest places in our own hearts. .

In college I played volleyball.  Yes, they have this sport for guys.  I was the captain of my team and so enjoyed a degree of influence.  I decided I would do something desperate and awkward.

After practice one day, as we sprawled across the gym floor stretching our aching legs, I dropped a bomb.  I announced that I knew we were all struggling with pornography.  I told them about the garbage in the garbage that was worse than garbage.  I told them that this couldn’t go on.  We had to rid ourselves of this darkness now before it embedded itself in our hearts.  We couldn’t carry this monster into ministry.  We decided that every Monday after practice we would get naked.  Not like that.  I mean we would sit around and confess–starkly and uninhibited.  We would tell each other what we looked at, how often and what we did.  We would systematically drag our darkness out into the light.  We would expose ourselves.  Naked.  No more hiding in the dark.

The first couple of weeks were a mess.  Our meetings took forever as each of us stared at the floor, mumbling through our dirty laundry. There were moments of helplessness and utter shame.  We dug up garbage from the past and dragged it into the light.  We prayed.  No, we begged for help.

Then, with gentle love and unwavering commitment we began to look each other in the eye.  We reminded each other of grace and unconditional love but demanded repentance.  “I love you but you can’t stay here.”  Our sessions began to get shorter.  The darkness was being pushed back.  Then there was the week when no one messed up.

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:19-21)

Sin, hidden in secret darkness has immense power.  The shame is paralyzing.  But sin, pulled into the light of community through confession loses its power.  We experienced freedom and victory because we painfully and systematically dragged our sin into the light.

If you want freedom there is but one way–confession and accountability.  Drag it into the light.


image credited to nkzs via stock.xchng

February Book Reviews

OK.  Maybe I read a lot this month.  Here are the books I polished off and a few thoughts on each title.



I love to read to my kids before bed.  My hope is that they will fall in love with books, adventure and learning.  My kids are fairly obsessed with The Lord of the Rings because of the LEGO video game so I thought it was time to introduce them to the real thing.  I loved watching my kids, my oldest son in particular imagine the story.  There were times when he jumped right out of bed in excitement and wonder.  It was so much fun!



I love history and I found this book to be incredibly interesting.  Woodard’s argument is that the United States has never really been a melting pot.  From the very early days of settlement, the United States has been a collection of conflicting cultures and peoples.  There are some awkward historical mistakes and I generally hated his opinion that Deep South  evangelical Christians are out to bring about “Baptist Sharia law” in the US but I did enjoy the book and found many of the arguments to be compelling.  I highly recommend it.  It’s a thought provoking read.


escape_from_sobibor_jacketWow.  This book was hard to read.  Sometimes I choose books because I know I need to read them.  This was one of those.  This is the story of how Jews from a Nazi death camp in Poland escaped.  It is profoundly heartbreaking.  I simply can’t believe that these events actually happened.  I’ve always understood that the Nazis were evil but I didn’t realize how many Polish nationals willingly helped them round up and in some cases kill Jews.  Even after the Soviets liberated Poland (not exactly a liberation) the killing continued but without any Nazi oversight.  The ethnic hatred for Jews in Eastern Europe during and leading up to WWII is absolutely astounding.  This book is definitely worth reading but you’ll probably need a box of Kleenex and a few harmless items to throw because it will make you furious.



My job security is dependent on this book reviews…so it was amazing.  Best book I’ve ever read!  OK, let’s be real.  This book was actually very good and  hit me at the right time.  My wife and I are scaling back and cutting down financially because we need to pay off debt from our failed adoption.  The funny thing about the $8,000 adoption tax credit is that you don’t get it when the adoption doesn’t go through.  The principles and ideas in this book motivated and encouraged us immensely.


I think this book is a must read for youth workers.  The first half of the book in particular is an excellent sociological study on the effects of fatherlessness.  It will break your heart and motivate you to love your kids well and mentor those who have been robbed of a father.


Not everyone is a fan of Brennan Manning’s theology but I found this book to be very refreshing.  I think his presentation of God may be a little simplistic but I appreciate his emphasis on God as a father who desperately loves and pursues His children.  That’s a message I need to hear over and over again.



Most people have heard of Blackwater.  The organization has a terrible reputation.  This is the story of Blackwater’s history from the perspective of its  former CEO, Erik Prince.  I really enjoyed this book.  I tend to be skeptical of mainstream media so I wanted to hear this story from a different angle.  Unfortunately, I think it is impossible to know what really happened in a lot of the situations described in this book because both the government and Erik Prince are fighting to protect their reputations.  Also, much of Blackwater’s relationship with the State Department and the CIA is still classified.  My opinion is that Blackwater isn’t nearly as bad as the media made it out to be and the government was far more involved in the use of contracted security than it wants to admit.