How to Fail College

I recently read a statistic that blew my mind. For most of the 20th century, the United States has led the world in college graduates. Recently, we’ve fallen out of the top ten. In fact, we now lead the world in college dropouts. If you’re curious, I read this in “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough.

Obviously, this is a bad thing…I think. I’m curious why you think this is happening, but for now, I have a few ideas.

1. Cost

The cost of college tuition has gone up 6 fold over the last 30 years. It is true that a college degree is still valuable but tuition costs have spiraled out of control. I personally know of many students who have dropped out of college or decided against college because of the cost. In addition, the epidemic of student loan debt has dissuaded many more prospective students, or at least pushed them toward community colleges, where dropout rates are much higher (roughly 60%).

2. Hyper Focus on College Entrance

Our government and schools are incredibly focused on college acceptance. College is talked about as if it is a magic bullet to end poverty. An incredible array of government programs have been put into effect over the last 50 years to get more students into college, but to my knowledge, very few resources are devoted to getting students through college.

Let’s be real, college is terribly difficult! The academics are demanding, the challenges of transitioning into adulthood are overwhelming, and social temptations are pervasive. If we want to move out of the basement of college completion statistics, we probably need to change our resource allocation and focus.

3. Lack of Direction

Years ago, graduating seniors had far more clarity on their career and life goals than today. Now, for a variety of reasons, college age students often experience an extended adolescence. Most of the college students I know who drop out, do so because they are confused about their life direction and rather than spend thousands of dollars trying to figure themselves out, they drop out, for at least a while. It is clear to me that, whatever the causes, a lack of life direction is a major factor on why many students are dropping out of college.

4. Lack of “Performance Character”

There is tremendous pressure on the typical teenager to achieve–in academics, sports, and extracurriculars. What matters are grades, high ACT scores and awards. While these things have their place, I believe we’ve lost something that matters deeply: character.

I’m talking about character traits like self-control and grit and enable a student to delay gratification and work hard in the face of temptations and difficulty. In short, I believe we are over emphasizing our student’s résumés and under emphasizing the skills and traits that will enable them to succeed in college.

5. College Isn’t for everyone

My last point is an argument that maybe being last in college dropouts isn’t such a bad thing. I know many recent college graduates who have a great degree from a reputable school but can’t land a job in their field of study. It is the dominant story in the 20 somethings I know. In contrast, my dad’s water well drilling business is always in need of skilled laborers who possess strong character and a willingness to work hard. He pays them well too, right out of high school!

While highly educated and qualified college graduates struggle to make minimum payments on their college debt because they can’t find the jobs they were promised, there are more jobs available in the trades than employers can fill. Maybe dropping out of college isn’t such a bad idea.

I’m curious what you think about America’s awesomeness at dropping out of college. Is it good or bad? And, if it’s bad, what can we as student pastors and educators do to help our students?


image credited to Robert Hruzek via Flickr

What I Learned in Costa Rica

As I write this, I’m chilling in San Jose, Costa Rica.  I’m here hanging out with Young Life staff, learning about their ministry in Central America. I’ve only been here a few days but I’ve been blown away. I love listening to ministry leaders talk about how God is moving–listening to their strategies and war stories. Here’s what I’ve picked up from Vida Joven.

Let God Drive Your Vision

These people pray and listen with intentionality. At one point, I heard someone say, we’ve been praying about this opportunity for ten years and God is just now opening up a way. 10 years? That is persistence!

Every leader I’ve talked with naturally articulates a posture of obedient following. They believe that God has given them a vision that stretches their personal and organizational capacities. They know what they are called to do, where they are called to do it and they work tirelessly to make it happen. It’s amazing to see.

To be honest, this focus is a challenge for me. I wonder if I spend enough time praying and listening, really trying to capture where God is moving.

A Clear Mission is Fuel

Every person I talked with on the Young Life team was buzzing with the same mission: We are called to disinterested teenagers, and our volunteer leaders are the pastors of these kids. When everyone is aligned with the mission, amazing things happen. A clear mission is like fuel. It propels you forward and ignites effective ministry.


Ministry is Always About Empowering People

What I love about the Young Life method is their focus on leader development. So many of the leaders I talked with were formerly students in the Young Life program. I love the emphasis of identifying leadership potential and then pouring into those people with relational energy and discipleship. It’s almost like it’s biblical or something…


Futbal is different here.

One of the highlights of this trip so far, has been a Costa Rican Premier League soccer match. I never really played soccer, although I do enjoy FIFA 15. Anyway, the crowd was small because of rain but the rowdies were insane. Those people never stop jumping, singing and shouting. One guy in particular banged on his drum the entire match. That’s like 3 hours! The devotion and passion of those fans was fun to watch.


There is a reason that Young Life is experiencing explosive growth in Central America.  When a team comes together under a unified vision and mission and commits to listening to and following the Holy Spirit, amazing things happen.  I loved seeing Costa Rican teenagers experience Young Life club.  I loved seeing Young Life volunteer leaders pouring into these kids and pulling them into relationship with Jesus.  What a fantastic ministry.


image credited to Charles Company Soler via Flickr

How to Write Killer Curriculum

Almost every student pastor wants to be a great communicator.  For many of us, this is the #1 expectation from the churches we work for.  In my opinion, the key to a great teaching is great curriculum.  Most of the student pastors I know write their own curriculum.  I don’t think this is always a win.  Over time, I’ve learned that naturally gifted speakers are not always strong curriculum writers and the best curriculum writers are not often gifted public speakers.  My point is that just because you speak well in front of a crowd of students doesn’t mean you are a great communicator…unless you are using great curriculum.

I spent the first half of my student ministry career believing I was a strong communicator.  I wasn’t.  I was a naturally gifted speaker who taught about whatever book or section of the Bible I had just read.  In other words, I wasn’t remotely strategic.  What I’ve learned over the last 5 years is that great curriculum involves an immense amount of planning and strategy.  Here are a few thoughts on what it takes to write killer curriculum:


Rule #1 for writing killer curriculum is understanding that you’re not Andy Stanley.  I don’t know how he does it but the guy consistently comes up with the most brilliant phrasing I’ve ever seen.  He’s an absolute genius…and I’m not, and neither are you.  The smartest thing you can do as a curriculum writer is collaborate.  On our team, I usually craft the initial phrasing and we rarely use exactly what I write.  We end up using the collaborative result of our collective brainstorming.  Our team curriculum is ALWAYS better than what I write on my own.  The 13 of us together might make one Andy Stanley.  The verdict is still out.  My point is that if you want to write great curriculum, you should collaborate.


If you want to master any skill, you must learn from the best.  When it comes to curriculum, I read the best stuff I can find, simply for the purpose of learning.  Personally, I think the team at XP3 from the reThink Group creates the best student ministry curriculum available.  I’m in the habit of buying series from them either to use or learn from.  Look for the ways that great curriculum writers structure their teachings.  Pay attention to their phrasing and contextualization.  My own curriculum has improved dramatically from learning from the best..


In my early days of student ministry, I thought that the goal of a great teaching was to have a great teaching.  If someone told me I did a good job then I win!  These days, I’ve changed my focus.  The point is transformation.  I firmly believe that transformation happens when God’s truth is engaged in the context of community.  This means that the goal of a great teaching should be the conversation that follows it.  First, I believe in a ministry structure in which small groups immediately follow teaching.  Secondly, I believe that the most important question you can ask as you prepare a teaching is:  “What conversation do I want small groups to have following this teaching?”

These days, I know I nailed it when small group leaders tell me about the conversations that took place in their groups.


I’m a firm believer in clarity. Say too much your audience will remember nothing.  If your goal is transformation, the smartest thing you can do as a curriculum writer or teacher is to make one point and to make it with crystal clarity.  Here are the crucial questions every great teaching must answer:

  • What is the one thing you want to say?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What do you want your audience to do with your one thing?

If the Scripture you are teaching from says 5 things either pick 1 and run with it or create a 5 week series.  Simplify your content for the sake of clarity.


The big questions my mentor Brian always asks about my curriculum are: “Who do you want students to become?” and “Where are you taking them?”  In other words, what’s the point of your curriculum?  To speak a little Orange:  Teach with the end in mind.

Killer curriculum functions as a map that leads your students to a destination.  What is your destination?  Who do you want your students to grow into?  The best way to uncover this is to spend a few hours with a white board dreaming about what a mature graduating 8th grader or 12th grader looks like.  Once you have a solid picture then work backwards.  If your dream includes students who are passionate about evangelism then you probably need to teach about evangelism on a regular basis.

As youth workers, it isn’t enough to be good speakers.  We need to become strong communicators.  To do that, we need solid curriculum.  My advice?  Take the time to learn the art of curriculum writing.  Or, if you simply don’t have the desire or  time, use ours.  Email me and I’ll hook you up.  Or, go out and get the best curriculum available and adapt it to your setting…XP3.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it takes to write killer curriculum.



image credited to Jonathan Kim via Flickr

My End of Summer Reading List

I read a couple of great books last month.  Check them out…

Son-of-HamasIt was really hard to put this book down!  If you’re unfamiliar, this is the autobiography of the son of a Hamas founder.  He shares about his upbringing, conversion to Christianity and defection to the West.  The insider perspective on Palestine and Hamas in particular was fascinating, particularly in light of what is going on in Israel and Palestine right now.  It’s definitely worth the read.

bookpicI found Freakonomics to be entertaining and insightful.  This, the authors’ second book follows in the same vein.  They spent a lot of time applying economic principles to the phenomenon of prostitution which was enlightening but also probably not for everyone.  My favorite section of the book was on global warming and how to reduce the power of hurricanes.  Genius.

c8807460d81413a43d81144acafc6735_largeI loved this book and the entire series.  Peterson is incredibly creative with his creatures, settings and characters.  I was also impressed with how he wove in biblical themes without sounding cheesy or like a Jesus-juke.  Like always, I got completely wrapped up in the narrative and didn’t see the ending coming.  It hit me like a freight train.  It happens every time.

I thought the book was excellent.  You should probably get the entire series right now.


Tag Team

My friend Seth introduced me to WWF when we were in elementary school.  I’m not talking about the World Wildlife Federation.  I’m talking about classic wrestle mania–Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Superfly Jimmy Snooka and Hacksaw Jim Dugan.  Absolutely classic.  Look, I know big time wrestling is a joke and terribly fake but when I was 9 I thought it was the greatest thing ever so just back off!

The best WWF wrestling matches were tag team matches because these superstar wrestlers would team up together and battle it out.  When one guy would get cracked over the head with a chair, the other guy would step in a bail him out.  That’s some friendship right there.  We would watch that stuff for hours and then reenact it when it was over.  We didn’t have DVR back then so you had to replay the action yourself.

I know it’s crazy but I’ve been thinking about tag team matches lately.  You see, I’ve realized some things about myself.  When I was in my early 20s, I basically thought I was awesome at just about every aspect of student ministry.  Over the last few years I’ve come to see that I’m definitely not awesome at some areas of student ministry.  It was a big step for me to admit that I’m not an A+ at everything.  Maybe you can relate.

For the last 6 years I’ve worked closely with a co-worker and friend named Jon.  Jon is essentially amazing at everything I’m terrible at and not so hot at some of the things I’m good at.  We’re dead opposite in every way–gifting, wiring, personality, and guitar skills–he’s amazing and I suck unless there’s a capo involved.

What I’ve come to see is that together we are a pretty phenomenal team.  When we are united, we’re good at everything we need to be good at.  We are capable of high caliber leadership when we are on the same page.  We’re like a good ole’ classic WWF tag team.

I’ve noticed that many strong leaders don’t work well with others.  I’ve seen this sort of thing over and over in churches and businesses.  Strong leaders usually possess a compelling vision, which is awesome and necessary, but often struggle to work well with or empower others.  In addition, they often do not recognize or acknowledge where they are weak.  The thing is:  everyone is weak.  None of us is gifted in every area.  You might be a fabulous speaker but I bet you are a D+ at organization.  You may be able to create amazing systems but I bet you struggle with envisioning the future.  We are all finite and only capable of awesomeness in a few skills.

A breakthrough moment happened for me when I realized that together Jon and I could be an A+ leadership team but alone I would only be a B.  It was a critical moment for me.  Like most of us, I have aspirations of greatness.  I want to do phenomenal work and build a successful student ministry but I’ve realized that I’m not capable of this on my own.  I would rather work together and be great than work alone and be decent.  Because of this, I’m all about tag team.

My guess is that there is someone in your professional or ministry environment like this.  You have one set of strengths and weaknesses and they possess the opposite.  There is potential for greatness in teamwork but the gatekeeper is humility.  If you want to part of something great, realize that you’ll never get there on your own.  The truth is, if you make everything about you, your organization will only be a strong as your weakest weakness.  Tag team may just be the key to moving forward and accelerating toward greatness.


image credited to Greg O’Connell via Flickr

My Favorite Word: Collaboration

It’s taken me a long time to figure this out but I recently uncovered the secret sauce to great student ministry.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a degree from a prestigious Christian university.  It’s not great curriculum, a killer band or an epic student center.  It’s not even hipster glasses.  It’s collaboration.

I’ve realized over the last few years, as we’ve added more and more staff to our student ministry team, that what makes our student ministry programming great is teamwork.  I consider myself to be a smart guy, a good curriculum writer and a solid youth pastor but our team consistently makes me and what I do better.  When I write a new teaching series and feel that it’s really good, it always comes back from team edits with better wording, more vivid imagery and more focused application.  The truth is, as much as I want to say I’m a great curriculum writer, what our team creates together is consistently better than what I produce on my own.

For our summer camp this year, I asked a few members of our team to create a worship experience for our students.  I had personally done this the previous three years, and I thought what I produced was pretty awesome until I experienced the worship night our team created.  It was phenomenal.  It completely blew me away.  Team is just better.  Collaboration creates a stronger student ministry.  Our programming, curriculum, trainings, events, trips…everything is better when our team collaborates.  I’m completely sold on team.  I’m done trying to be awesome on my own.

Here’s the thing:  I understand that not everyone has the luxury of working on a large team, whether your field is student ministry or something else.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a team.  Make one.  If I could rewind the tape and go back to my first student ministry job, the first thing I would do is recruit a team.  I would invite volunteers to edit my teaching scripts and critique film of my teachings.  I would gather together with a group of local student pastors on a regular basis, study together and brainstorm ideas on how to do student ministry amazingly well.

I believe that one of the major weaknesses of student ministry across the nation is that youth workers are far too isolated from each other.  There is so much we could learn from each other if we were willing to share and listen.  Our students deserve and need great student ministry.  Let’s move toward collaboration.