Your Most Important Role

One of the best things about the Orange Conference is that it’s a two for one deal.  What I mean is that, while I’m here, I feel inspired and empowered to do better student ministry.  There’s no way that you can sit through the sessions and breakouts and not be infused with passion, vision and game changing ideas.  It’s incredible.  This conference and these people make me feel like I could and should lead my student ministry for another 20 years.

The thing that has surprised me is that I almost feel like I’m getting more out of the conference as a parent.  The focus of the conference this year is on Phases:  “It’s just a phase, so don’t miss it.”  I’ve been reminded of the amazing privilege, responsibility and gift it is to be a parent.

I’m convinced that parenting is the hardest thing most of us will ever do.  It’s exhausting, perplexing, and seemingly never-ending.  But, God has given my wife and me four little humans to love, protect, teach, mentor, and guide.  It’s an amazing journey and worth every minute, tear, back ache and dirty diaper.  These little ones are made in the image of God and each one of them possesses the incredible potential that comes with that.  Could there be any more meaningful role, in life, than to help our children discover their potential as image-bearers of God?

14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Don’t Become “That” Youth Pastor

It’s Orange Conference Eve!!!  I’m so pumped for this year’s Orange Conference. I’ll be there with a few members of my team if you want to hang out.  You’ll be able to find me at the food trucks.

In honor of the Orange Conference, I’m linking to a post I wrote for the Orange Leaders blog last month.  Check it out…

Last night I had a nightmare. I was at my church campus, leading a ministry event for students but everything was wrong . . . way wrong. My hair was bleached blond, I was wearing a seashell necklace and carpenter jeans. Petra was blasting out of the PA and I was unwrapping marshmallows for an epic game of pudgy bunny. Did I mention there was no one there? Zilch! The only person there was my mom, and even she looked bored. The event was a tragic hodgepodge of irrelevance. Then I woke up…

You can read the rest of the post here.

I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn and experience at the Orange Conference with all of you very soon!

Dumb | Failure to Communicate

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the dumb things I’ve done in student ministry.  If you’re wondering, it doesn’t feel that great, but I think it’s important because what we do as student pastors and volunteers is crucial.  My hope is that by reading about my mistakes, you’ll be able to avoid them in your own life and ministry.  So, here we go with number 2 in my top 10 list:  Saying Too Much

I’ve always considered myself to be a decent public speaker.  I usually receive good feedback, other than the first sermon I gave, after which, a crusty old man came up to me and say, “You’re going to be a good preacher someday.”  I mean, how do you interpret that?  “Thanks?”

In my opinion, becoming a great student ministry communicator requires answering three questions.

1. What’s the focus?

2. Who is my audience?

3. What’s the goal?


I believe that the greatest temptation for someone who communicates to students is to focus on entertainment rather than biblical truth.  This is incredibly difficult because it’s hard to keep the attention of students, particularly students who have grown up in church.  They know all the stories.  They’ve sat through about 3 million sermons.  How do you grab and keep their attention?

For me, the answer is almost always comedy.  To be honest, it is easy for me to get on stage and perform stand up comedy disguised as a sermon and receive great feedback.  However, comedy alone doesn’t change lives, God’s truth does.  The skill we all need to learn is to tap into the natural tension, character development, and inherent conflict of the biblical narratives and let them propel our communications.  And, to be clear, all my communications are funny.  It’s a gift God has given me and there’s nothing wrong with throwing everything you have into crafting a great communication.  But, the point is, if your focus isn’t God’s truth, what’s the point?


I was trained to preach at a conservative bible college.  I was taught to preach using three points.  These concepts were drilled into me.  Then, I was hired as a youth pastor at a church that believed in the same model of communicating.  Now, it isn’t that this model is wrong, necessarily.  However, as I prepared my communications, I had the wrong audience in mind.  I prepared to impress my professors and the adults in our congregation who believed in this model of communicating.  I failed to ask these important questions:  How does my audience learn?  Where are they developmentally?  What will grab their attention, focus their thoughts and move them?  In other words, what do students need to hear, based on where they are at?

I’ve come to believe that in order to be effective, communications must be targeted and tailored to the audience.  If you’re following a communication model because that’s “the model,” it’s very likely that you aren’t engaging your audience.  For me, I spent the first few years of my career saying way too much and yet saying nothing.  I don’t believe my audience of students learned much during my first few years of ministry because I wasn’t aiming for them.  Three points meant no points.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn.


Allow me to be vulnerable for a moment.  I love being told, “That was a great talk!”  It feels so good! You’re probably the same.  We’re hard wired to thrive on encouragement.  The problem comes when you aim for this.  I think that many of us, if we are honest, subconsciously prepare our communications with the goal of getting congratulated.  This focus is dangerous for a number of reasons, but to the point of this blog post, it isn’t the right goal for an effective communication.

I’ve learned to aim for different feedback from students and volunteers.  These days, what I want to hear is this:  “Our small group had a great conversation tonight!”  In our ministry structure, small groups immediately follow the communication.  This is intentional because we teach for the conversation.  The goal of the sermon is to set up conversation in the small group.  My hope is that the focus isn’t on me, as the communicator, but rather on the small group leader and the dialogue.  Students learn by engaging.

In the end, what we want, is life-change.  We want students to embrace Jesus and become more like Him.  We believe that the path to life-change is biblically centered communications that are developmentally appropriate and set up a conversations between students and their small group leaders.  Small group leaders help put handles on the communication.  They help students engage and implement what the Bible says.


As I see it, great student ministry communications are built on the answers to three difficult questions:  What’s the focus?  Who is my audience?  What’s the goal?  If you answer these questions well.  You’ll likely become a great communicator.

Lastly, not every student pastor has the time, or is wired to write great communications.  If you find yourself in this situation, that’s ok!  If it would be helpful, I’d be happy to send you any of our teaching series, complete with teaching scripts and graphics.  Comment on this post or email me if you’re interested.  Also, reThink’s XP3 curriculum is fantastic.


image credited to Elyce Feliz via Flickr


Dumb | One Lawsuit Away

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the top ten dumbest things I’ve done in student ministry.  My intention is not to make myself look like an idiot (although I’m sure that’s entertaining) but rather to help other student ministry workers avoid the same mistakes I’ve made.  My topic for today is liability.  Now, I realize that I might sound like your paranoid grandmother, blogging about this topic (not the blogging–I can’t really see your grams blogging, but rather the liability paranoia) but I’ve come to realize that liability is something worth talking about because the truth is that, while it isn’t a very fun topic, our churches and student ministries are one bad lawsuit away from being shut down.  It happens.  I don’t want it to happen to me and I don’t want it to happen to you because what we do, as student pastors and volunteers is too important to jeopardize.  So, indulge me.  Let me share a little story…

One thing you should know about me is that I love mission trips.  I love how they transform lives.  The combination of having your eyes opened to needs in the world, feeling like God can actually use you, and the experience of traveling and serving together with a small group of people changes the trajectory of a life, over and over again.  I absolutely love it.

As a younger student pastor, my assumption was that the more intense the mission trip experience, the more impactful it would be in the lives of my students.  I suppose that to some degree, this is probably true.  The problem, I discovered, is that there’s a line, and beyond that line, well, you’re just asking for trouble.

Early in my career, an opportunity arose to take students to Honduras to help local church planters build churches among the Lenca people.  I was so pumped!  This was exactly the type of trip I was looking for.  And to be fair, these trips were incredibly life-changing for my students, volunteers and me.  However, looking back, I realized that a few of these trips to Honduras slipped across the line and became too dangerous for students.  Let me explain.  Here’s what I remember from these trips:

  • students riding in the back of pickups with indigenous drivers on horrendous mountain roads
  • never knowing exactly where I was
  • being 2 hours away from the nearest hospital while doing semi-dangerous construction work
  • being stranded in the jungle completely alone with two students for several hours
  • framing a church with a chainsaw…because that’s what we had
  • sliding backwards down a slippery mountain road in our team vehicle
  • students walking on planking two stories above ground while we worked
  • not having appropriate safety gear for students
  • being stranded in a mountain village for a few days because a monsoon washed away the roads
  • building a church in a mountain village that I later learned had tried to kill one of the missionaries
  • did I mention that I brought 9th grades?
  • oh, and Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world..

Look…I know this list makes me look like a complete idiot but I assure you that the results from this trip made me look like a hero with parents, leadership and the students.  In fact, some of them will probably want to fight me if they read this.  This trip really did impact students for life.  Also, you should know that the missionaries we were working with are incredible people who are doing amazing work.  It’s just that these trips weren’t a good fit for high school students.

Looking back, I realized that we were one small mishap away from major problems.  What if a kid had fallen?  What if our team vehicle had slipped off the road and into the ravine?  What if someone had been maimed by that chainsaw?

First off, the tragedy would have been unspeakable.  Secondly, a grieving or angry parent could have ended our entire church with a lawsuit that we never could have won.  Also, a 2 or 3 million dollar lawsuit would sink most churches.  In a court of law, my case would have been indefensible.  “You were where?”  “You were doing what?”  “What were you thinking?!?”  I mean, let’s be real, we didn’t even have a release of liability form!

I encourage you to consider liability as you plan events and trips.  Do you have a plan?  Does your church have liability insurance?  Do you require a release of liability form?  What is your emergency protocol?  Do you run background checks on your volunteers?  Do you have someone in your context asking you hard questions about your liability for events and trips?  In my opinion, we have to be able to answer all of these questions intelligently and effectively because what we do is so important.  It isn’t worth jeopardizing because of negligence or recklessness.


image credited to Shawn Carpenter via Flickr

Dumb | TMI

Lately I’ve been blogging about the dumbest mistakes I’ve made in student ministry.  My hope is that my dumb mistakes will inspire you to be…well, not dumb.  What we do is far too important for us to be dumb!

One of the dumb things that student ministry volunteers and pastors do is disqualify themselves.  Here’s what I mean…

One of the dumb mistakes I made, early in my student ministry days, was TMI–that is too much information.  I was sharing too much information in the wrong places, specifically, I was processing in the wrong places.  There’s no doubt that ministry is stressful.  Churches are quirky organizations and people do the craziest things.  Everyone in ministry needs a place to vent and process.  The problem is that far too many of us choose to do this online or with the wrong people.  Processing in the wrong places can be incredibly damaging to your own reputation and also to the faith and trust of the people you are venting to.  An unfiltered comment posted to twitter or Facebook doesn’t have the privilege of further explanation or context.  I learned this the hard way in the early 2000s as I explored the writings of the Emergent church movement.  Let me explain:

I grew up in very conservative churches, attended a very conservative Bible church and was on staff at a conservative Baptist Church.  When I ran into Emergent writers, I felt like I had finally discovered the missing piece of my faith, which was a theology that incorporated the kingdom and also cared about suffering in the world.  As I explored these ideas, I took to my Xanga page (yeah, I’m that old) with my musings.  The problem was that my students, volunteers and co-workers who read my blog didn’t live in my head.  They didn’t know that I was adding a kingdom minded branch to my biblically centered theology.  They thought I was going “liberal.”

What I learned was that while I needed to process what I was learning, the Internet isn”t the place to process.  Unfortunately, I lost some credibility and trust with a few students, parents and volunteers along the way.  Processing in the wrong place can be pretty dumb.

The second way I see student ministry volunteers and pastors disqualifying themselves with TMI is also on the internet.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but in the world of social media, it might be better to say that a picture generates a thousand interpretations.  The beauty of Instagram, Vine, Twitter and Facebook is that you get to share your life with people.  The danger is that people have the freedom to make their own decisions about what your pictures mean.  This idea is especially important if you are in ministry.  Let me give you the clearest example I can think of:  alcohol.

We know from the Bible that there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, in fact there is an example of Paul encouraging Timothy to drink a little more wine for health reasons.  We also know that the Bible speaks explicitly again getting drunk, especially if you are a spiritual leader.  In addition to these two ideas, many in our culture struggle with abusing alcohol.  Lastly, if you serve at a church with conservative roots, you probably have church members who think alcohol is the devil.

The thing is, when you post a picture to Instagram of you and your bros at Buffalo Wild Wings, enjoying a brew while cheering for your squad, you don’t get to explain the context to your boss, the volunteer who is a recovering alcoholic, your student who is debating whether to party on Friday night, or your hyper-conservative aunt Gertrude.  They just jump to whatever conclusions they want.

In my opinion, it simply isn’t worth the trouble.  We’ve gone as far as create a social media contract for our staff and volunteers.  The basic gist is, “I agree to not be dumb on social media.”  We have a policy that states that our staff and volunteers won’t post pictures of drinking to social media.  I would encourage you to do the same in your ministry context.  It’s not worth tarnishing your reputation or the reputation of your ministry over a misinterpretation.