1 Practice That Could Transform Your Student Ministry

Most of us would agree that volunteers, particularly small group leaders are absolutely crucial to a strong student ministry.  A healthy, mentoring relationship with a caring adult is the one thing we can offer a student that they can’t get anywhere else.  It’s is imperative that our small group leaders are amazing!  Why is it, then, that we often invest so little in our small group leaders?  They ought to be our number one priority.

Years ago, our student ministry team stumbled upon a practice that has transformed our student ministry.  I honestly believe that our volunteer team is stronger than any I’ve seen anywhere else and our strength is built upon one simple practice that any student ministry can implement.  It’s so simple, easy and cheap that I can’t figure out why more student ministries don’t embrace it.  What is it?  Cloning.  You take your best volunteers and you simply clone them.  It’s genius!  OK, not really.  I mean that would be cool, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  Read on.

The super secret amazing practice that we stumbled upon is an hour long, weekly leader meeting, at the beginning of our programming.  Seriously, that’s it.  Every week, whether we are at one of our church campuses or in homes, the night begins with an hour long leader meeting that includes 4 components:  food, community, instructions and training.




Including our leader meeting, our typical night of high school programming lasts for 3 hours.  You can’t ask volunteers for 3 hours without feeding them!  Besides, food is always a great way to say thank-you and it is foundational for building community, which is what we’re all about.




We believe that small group leaders are at their best when they serve as a community.  Weekly leader meetings have helped us build quality community.  Here’s how it works: each volunteer is placed in a team of volunteers–usually 8-10 people.  This team always sits together at every leader meeting.  Our goal is that this team would function like a small group.  Eating a meal together every week greatly contributes to the family culture that we’re attempting to build.  We firmly believe that in order to build real community you need consistency and time.  A weekly leader meeting that includes a meal ensures that both components happen on a weekly basis..




In order for a great night of student ministry to happen, all the key players need to be on the same page.  The third component of our weekly leader meetings is instructions.  This part is easy and most student ministries already do this.  We usually take about 5 minutes to walk through the night and make sure everyone knows what to expect, the goals, and the roles they need to fill.  One important point is that all of our volunteers and staff already know what will happen before our leader meeting because they (hopefully!) read our leader blog.




In my experience, most student ministries are somewhere between poor and terrible at training their volunteers.  It’s difficult to find time and training events are often poorly attended.  What if, instead of 2 or 3 training events throughout the year, you did 30 minutes of training every week?  If your student ministry only meets during the school year, like ours, you still get 16 hours of training (32 weeks x 30 minutes of training).  And how much do you really think volunteers retain from a 1 or 2 hour training event?  Weekly 30 minute trainings are the way to go!  We love this model.

So, what do we train them on?  All kinds of stuff!  We talk about small group leading practices, our philosophy of ministry, how to handle crisis situations, how to talk about sexuality with a students, we invite our best small group leaders to share their best practices, we talk about how to partner with parents, how to do a one-on-one meeting with out being weird…basically, we train them on everything!  We find this training time to be incredibly valuable because we know that our student ministry is only as strong as our volunteers.  Let’s put it this way:  discipleship in your student ministry will only be as effective as your disciplers.


So there you have it–one practice that could transform your student ministry.  It’s all about elevating your volunteers through an intentional weekly volunteer meeting.  What do you think?



pizza image credited to rdpeyton via Flickr

Lego image credited to Nick Royer via Flickr

Chalkboard image credited to Jeff Warren via Flickr

Family Devotions That Don’t Suck

I have this vivid memory from my childhood.  I was at a friend’s house for dinner when suddenly my friend’s dad opened up a old, boring looking, devotional book and began leading the family in a Bible study.  It was terrible.  I, along with everyone else around the table was bored to tears.  The devotional was too old for kids, my friend’s dad was clearly going through the motions, and it was obvious that everyone just wanted to leave the table.  And yet, the guy droned on for about 20 minutes.  In that moment, I vowed to never bore my kids to tears with Jesus and the Bible.  I decided that I would never lead boring family devotions…and then I had my own kids.

Fast forward a few years and now I have four kids of my own.  What I want more than anything in the world is for my kids to fall in love with Jesus–for them to understand God’s incredible, amazing, transformational love for them.  I desperately want them to understand the Bible, how it works, what it means and how it intersects with their life. My great hope is that they would join their lives with God’s mission in the world and experience life the way it was meant to be lived.

I’m realizing that in order for these dreams to come true, my wife and I have to work very hard.  Yes, God is the One who makes faith grow, but I believe we as parents have a role too.  The truth is, it takes discipline and persistence to build a worldview, particularly in a culture that’s becoming more and more opposed to a biblical worldview.

To my consternation, I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to grow faith in my kids is family devotions.  For years I fought this idea because I don’t want my kids to associate boredom with Jesus, but now I’ve realized that family devotions don’t have to suck.  There are, for example, amazing resources available.  My two favorite books happen to be by the same author, Sally Lloyd-Jones, who I was privileged to briefly meet at Hutchmoot.  You’re probably familiar with the first, The Storybook Bible.

51g1-kUM0tLI love this book!  The stories and the illustrations are fantastic for little kids.  We’ve read this through a few times at bed time with our kids.  It’s a great way to build a biblical foundation with your kids at home.  The second book is a devotional that we’ve been using at family meals.  It’s called, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing.

617vYV9yWrL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been very impressed with this book.  My kids love it!  I think it is more poetic that devotional, but for my family, it functions perfectly as a short devotional following our evening meal.  My kids engage with the material in a way that fills me with hope.  If you have elementary kids at home, this book might be a great fit.

Let me encourage you, if you are a parent of young children, to take advantage of your time with your kids.  It won’t be long before they stop listening to you the way they are right now.  Spoiler alert, your kid will become teenagers!  Capitalize on your time together by teaching them the Bible in a way that is fun and engages their budding faith.  These two books are great resources but let me know if you’ve discovered a resource or a practice that works well in your family.

Planting Dormant Seeds

I recently met up with a friend from high school.  This was a guy I shared Jesus with 18 years ago.  We were juniors in high school (yes, I’m that old).  At the time, he was receptive to the Gospel and I did my best to disciple him.  He joined my church’s youth group and we even formed a little rogue small group on the side.  He was full of passion and questions.  As often happens to high school friends, we grew apart when we moved away to college.  At first we talked periodically and then lost touch for many years.

Fast forward the tape 17 years, and I found myself sitting across from this old friend at Starbucks, listening to him narrate the tale of his life.  It hasn’t been a smooth journey.  He made a mess of things–very nearly destroying his family and himself.  And yet, in the midst of his destructive behavior, he couldn’t get away from Jesus.  He couldn’t get away from the conversations we had in high school, 17 years ago.  The seeds that were planted simply wouldn’t die.

To use his own words, he wasted many years of his life running from God and living for himself, but in the end, when his eyes were finally opened to the train-wreck he was headed for, he returned to Jesus.  He confessed his betrayals and sins to his wife and friends and by grace they responded with forgiveness and accountability.  Now, a few years beyond this breaking point in his life, he is thriving in his faith.  He’s engaged with a good church and he and his wife are working through marriage counseling.  He told me that finally, after two years,  they’ve graduated to monthly sessions.

What amazed me about this story was the time it took for this prodigal to come home.  It took years for the dormant seeds that were planted to grow.  There’s a lot of life that happens over 17 years!  How often I’ve assumed that a student is done with Jesus after only one 1 or 2 years of wandering.  How many times have I been wrong?  How many times did I give up too soon?

As a student pastor, I constantly remind myself and our volunteer small group leaders that student ministry is a long-term investment.  This conversation at Starbucks was a taste of my own medicine.  We can’t predict how the words of grace that we speak, on behalf of Jesus, will play out in the lives of those we invest in.  Mentoring a teenager in faith is incredibly powerful, but we often can’t predict how long it will take for our words to take root.  In the case of my friend, it was 17 years.

I can’t help but wonder how my friend’s journey might have been different if we had stayed connected.  How much pain could have been avoided if someone had been speaking love and truth into his life during his wandering?  We must find ways to stay connected and invested in the lives of our students in life beyond high school.

Sometimes the seeds we plant will remain dormant for years, sometimes for decades, but the planting of these seeds matters.  What we as student pastors, volunteers, small group leaders, parents, teachers and mentors say and do in the lives of students is hugely important.  Don’t give up.  Don’t quit.  Never write a student off.  We never know when seeds are lying dormant, waiting for the right conditions or stresses to spring to life.


image credited to Rex Boggs via Flickr

The 1 Thing You Have That Trumps Culture

Recently, I attended the Orange Tour at Woodside Bible Church in Troy, MI.  BTWs, if you haven’t been to the Orange Tour, it is a great one day experience.  We took our entire family ministries team and loved it!  And, Woodside Bible is a pretty cool church who I enjoy talking with because, like us, they are a large church attempting to figure out multi-sites.

Anyway, while I was at the Orange Tour, Reggie Joiner said something that has stuck with me.  When he said it, I wanted to stand up and shout, “YES!” but I didn’t because I got scared.  I didn’t come from one of those church backgrounds where people yell amen at the preacher or even clap.  We grunted or perhaps nodded.  Well, now I’m off-track.

So, let me paraphrase what Reggie said:   We, in student ministry, often get caught up in the flash and bang of programming and environment.  We focus on great videos, lighting, sound, games, and musicians.  We tend to believe that these things will attract people.

Many of us, who don’t have access to the massive budgets of mega churches, feel that we can’t compete with the larger churches.  They have their fancy youth centers, production engineers, and arena-quality auditoriums.  If the flash and bang of programming and environment is what attracts students, then smaller churches might as well close up shop, right?

But, the truth is that none of us, mega or small, can compete with what people see on TV, YouTube or the theater.  Our culture will always win in a war of technology and entertainment.  Whether you are a mega church of 20,000 or a country bumpkin church of 50, you cannot consistently beat culture in a game of who is more technologically or artistically innovative.

There is, however, one way in which culture can never beat us.  There is one thing that we provide that students cannot get anywhere else in our culture, and that is caring, spiritually mature adults who consistently love students and invest in them.  It’s all about relationships.  The vast majority of kids don’t have adults in their lives who are consistently there for them, whose motives are not exploitative in any way.  These relationships are where we can win, and this is why a small student ministry can be every bit as effective as a meg church student ministry.

Here’s how to do it:

1.  Recruit and Equip Pastors

Students have plenty of adults in their lives.  It’s not that we just need more nice adults.  What we need are pastors.  We need adults who are spiritual mature who have the capacity and desire to walk alongside students and mentor them in faith.  In our ministry, the small group leaders are the pastors.  They are the ones who shepherd the students.

To be clear, this requires and immense amount of training, community and coaching.  We imbed our small group leaders in community, train them on a bi-weekly basis and constantly meet with them for coffee along the way to encourage and guide them.  The truth is, our staff invests far more in our volunteers than our students.  This is one of the secret ingredients for growth in student ministry.

2.  Think Long-Term

The kind of shepherding relationship we’re talking about doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes years to develop.  Most students don’t have adults in their lives who are consistently there for them so it takes a long time to build trust.  We ask our middle school leaders to lead for 3 years and our high school leaders to lead for 5 (4 years in high school and 1 year beyond).  The depth of relationship we are talking about here takes a long-term investment.  You have to fight for longevity.

We’ve achieved longevity because our staff stick around forever and because we’ve created a culture in which the kind of adults who are want hate leaving.  Give your volunteers the same depth of community and shepherding that students crave.

3. Focus on the Conversation

If relationships are the one way we can beat culture every time, then our entire focus should be on the conversation.  Every event should be about groups and groups should be the focal point of all your programming.  For us, the focus isn’t worship or even the teaching.  It’s small group time.  The teaching always points to a conversation that leaders have been prepared for.  On retreats, mission trips and camps, small groups experience these things together.  It’s all about the conversation.


So, whether you are a student ministry of 10 or 10,000, relationships are where we can win.  We can offer students something incredible powerful and magnetic:  a relationship with a caring adult who loves them and wants to invest in their lives.  If you’d like to learn more on how to develop a student ministry like this.  This is the book for you:  Creating a Lead Small Culture.



photo credited to David Pacey via Flickr

Falling Leaves and Lots of Books

Leadership and ministry require knowledge and wisdom.  Every morning I pray for wisdom because I constantly feel inadequate to lead my amazing team.  With that said, I don’t think wisdom is a passive exchange.  I don’t believe that God honors the request for wisdom without the pursuit of wisdom.  And, that’s why I read voraciously.  Wisdom is something that is developed over years.  I think it is more like the 10,000 Hours Rule that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his book Outliers, than it is momentary infusion of insight. So, if you are in leadership or ministry…or life, I implore you to read voraciously!  Here’s what I read in September:

519GwSuqxcLOne of the best times to read is while traveling.  I read this book while flying to and from Costa Rica on a scouting trip for a summer missions location.  Osborne has a ridiculous amount of ministry experience.  One thing I appreciate is that over the years, his church has grown from small to ginormous.  Because of this, he has a good understanding of leadership and church culture in a variety of settings.

13435889I really enjoyed this book.  I was fascinated by his research into character.  Tough’s thoughts on the importance of performance character as a predictor of success has influenced my thinking a great deal.  If you have kids, this is a great book to help you think differently about training your children for success in life.

talk-like-ted-400x400-imadte4ymfsyqpymRecently, I attended an artist conference in Nashville, called Hutchmoot.  During one of the sessions, Andrew Peterson asked the audience to share with the person next to them the last book they had read for fun.  My answer was this book.  The person next to me answered, “Isn’t that a book for work or something?”  And, I said, “Yes, but I love my job and I love speaking.”  In my head I thought, “Speaking is an art too dang it!”  But, I didn’t say that because I have a measure of social awareness.

Anyway, this is a great book for those of us who speak or teach on a regular basis–in any format.  I believe there are a million reasons to think of a student ministry teaching like a TED talk.  We have much to learn from the best communicators in the world and this book is an insider’s look into the presenting philosophy of TED speakers.  Check it out.

JunkyardPlanet_Na_Cvr1Sigh…yes, I read a book about trash.  This book was amazing!  The author grew up in the US scrap industry and then spent the better part of a decade in China exploring where American trash and scrap goes.  If you’ve ever wondered where your car goes when it dies or whether that bottle of Tide you just emptied goes to heaven, this is your book.  In my opinion, this book finds a nice balance between hardcore environmentalists and heartless big business.  The truth is often in the middle.  Idealism doesn’t often work in the real world.

As Americans who often think that separating our recyclables into the correctly colored containers is an act of heroism, we need to hear the story of how these items are actually recycled.  We need to learn about these Chinese recycling centers, places so polluted that even the Chinese government, hardly a stalwart of environmentalism, has shut them down.  We owe it to the impoverished rural Chinese who are poisoned by the thousands to transform our throw away metals, electronics and plastics into new goods that we can recycle all over again.


Why We Meet in Homes

Our student ministry meets in homes every other week.  Crazy I know.  Twice a month, we sacrifice epic large group programming and cram our students and small group leaders in regional homes.  We sacrifice the awesome band, stage lighting, world class teacher (me of course!), stage, convenience, latte maker and everything else. Why would we do such a crazy thing?  Because, the payoff is tremendous.  I’m telling you that this model is a secret weapon that the rest of the student ministry world needs to wake up to!

Here’s a video we recently made for our parents to explain why we do this crazy thing.  Check it out.

Why we do House (formerly called Cell Family) from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.


Dump the Poison

Here’s a teaching video we showed a few weeks ago on forgiveness, revenge and poison.  We filmed it at my friend Kirk’s house.  If you look closely, you can see the William Howard Taft Raft resting safely after it’s legendary maiden voyage.  Check it out…

Monster: Forgiveness from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.

Let’s Go to Orange!

Hey Friends!

Today is the last day of the early bird rate for the Orange Conference.  I absolutely love this organization and this conference.  I’d love for you to come this year.  Here’s a recap of my experience at Orange last spring…


Last week, I traveled to Atlanta with a few members of our Family Ministries team to join 6000 others for the Orange Conference.  As a student pastor, I’ve been to a lot of student ministry and family ministry conferences.  In my opinion, this was the best.  If you serve students or children, you need to go next year.  Here’s why.


Food Trucks

Everyone knows that the most important thing about conferences, or life for that matter is food.  Maybe I’m a little obsessed but I love great food.    Spice, flavor, combinations and ethnic touches dazzle my palate.  One of the things I love about Orange is that they bring in food trucks–seriously, one of the smartest inventions of all time.  Also, I love sitting around the table with people I care about or want to learn from, sharing a meal and talking about ministry and strategy.



Ministry is a sloppy bucket of stress.  Particularly at this time of year, we’re all slightly to moderately frazzled.


“Did you just stick your finger in an electric socket or maybe hug a nuclear warhead?”

“Nope.  Just finished small group.”


Orange brought an insane amount of comedy this year.  At times, I was crying because I was laughing so hard.  I woke in the morning with sore abs.  This may have more to do with sloth than comedy…Either way, thanks for the ab workout.



Sadly, not every work environment or church values creativity and artistic expression.  One of the things I love about reThink and the Orange Conference is a high value on creativity and art.  They understand the work it takes to write good curriculum, produce quality videos and create engaging programs.  It’s more art than science for sure.  It’s a lovely feeling to be told over and over again that the work we do matters.  Also, I saw a bunch of ideas that I’ve already begun stealing.  Don’t tell anyone.



The thing I love the most about reThink is that they elevate the local church.  They are constantly looking for ways to connect people like me with other youth workers who serve in similar contexts or think about ministry in the same ways.  Through my new friend Jeremy at reThink, I met a bunch of youth workers at Orange.  I’m pumped to engage these men and women in conversation about how exactly we do this work God has called us to.  I love collaboration.


Shared Wisdom

For me, the best moment of Orange was Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner demonstrating how to talk to middle school students about same sex attraction.  This is obviously a conversation in which many churches have dropped the ball.  The mantra I walked away with is this:  “We believe the church should be the safest place for students experiencing same sex attraction.”  I’m in for struggling toward this goal.



I could talk strategy all night.  Specifically, I love to sit around with student ministry workers and discuss how to do what we do better.  I love to dream, evaluate, fret, deconstruct, and tinker with concepts and practices.  The Orange Conference is an excellent place to do this.



I’ll be honest, I limped into the Orange Conference this year.  It’s been a beast of a year.  I’m in a new and challenging role, we opened high school ministry on a new campus, hired 4 new staff, battled through the worst winter in recent history (which translated into numerous cancellations and a momentum free fall).  A week ago, a ll I really wanted was June because June means the ministry regular season is over.  And yet, somehow, someway, through food trucks, laughter, imparted value, collaboration, shared wisdom, and strategery sessions, I’m back in the ring itching for a fight.  I’ve fallen back in love with my work, my team and the struggle of passing on faith to the next generation.

Here’s to you reThink for an “eptastic” week.  And for the rest of you, let’s meet up in Atlanta next April.



static hair photo credited to Jeff Latimer via Flickr

Come with Me to the Orange Conference!

I want to tell you about one of my favorite things in the world:  The Orange Conference.  Over the last few years, this experience has been one of the highlights.  Ministry is exhausting.  Whether you are on staff or a volunteer, pouring your life into the next generation is exhilarating and exhausting.  The Orange Conference is one of those experiences that recharges my batteries and my passion.

Let me tell you what happens to me when I attend Orange:  I laugh hysterically.  I reconnect with God in meaningful ways.  I cry over the hurt and rejection students experience.  I think deeply over ministry strategy.  I worship without distraction.  I appreciate our volunteers in new ways.  I connect with other ministry leaders who think like me.  I eat amazing food!  I develop new friendships with student pastors all over the country.  And, most importantly, I always leave rejuvenated, recharged, reimpassioned (just made that one up), reanimated and reconnected.

Here’s a video to prove that I’m not just making stuff up.

The Orange Conference 2014: Highlights from Orange on Vimeo.

If you are a student ministry or kids ministry person, I would love for you to check out this conference.  It’s the best out there.  Registration is open and the super duper early bird price is still available until October 9.  Check it out:  The Orange Conference 2015.