Thursday, December 17, 2020

Crafting Engaging Sermon Discussion Guides for Small Groups

We’ve all been there: the blank white screen, the copious sermon notes to sift through, and the sudden realization that your church’s small groups are meeting the next day and using the very discussion guide that you haven’t even started to write yet. Whether you are fortunate enough to obtain the sermon notes in advance or whether you prefer to burn the midnight oil and write your sermon discussion guides late into Sunday evenings, we all can agree that writing consistently engaging sermon discussion guides is a tough gig. But we teachers wouldn’t have it any other way, and this coffee-fueled labor of love finds itself reenergized by the stories that are heard from the field when small group leaders occasionally stop us in the church lobby to share a quick testimony of a breakthrough conversation they had last week in their group. It’s moments like these where we become filled with joy and praise God for giving us the amazing opportunity to artfully craft content that stirs the hearts of small group attendees in such a transformational way. Today, let us explore a few strategies on creating sermon discussion guides that capture the hearts and minds of our churches’ small group attendees on a weekly basis.

Power of Prayer
You probably guessed “Prayer” was on the list, and readers of this article may be tempted to even pass over this section, but please hear me out on this one. There have been countless times when I became anxious and was not sure of what I could possibly write to help glorify God in a sermon discussion guide. However, during each and every single one of those “countless times,” I have called upon the Lord and asked for His wisdom to give me a helping hand; I’m here to share with you that He has faithfully and powerfully shown up every single one of those times. That’s how good God is. When we pray and ask for something that is in alignment with His will and for something that gives Him glory, then He will show up for His name’s sake. If you have been struggling with finding the wisdom that can help you craft your guides, then pray—I mean really…truly give your sermon discussion guide to God and ask for the Holy Spirit to bless you with the ability to seek and find what He has in store for your small group ministry. I promise you that He will deliver.

Context is Key
When I listen to my pastors’ sermons, I try to jot down the verses used and key takeaways that can be utilized as starting points for questions within that week’s guide. One tactic that I use is to bring along my laptop and paraphrase the sermon in real-time. By doing this, I’m then able to go back through my notes and find the key points from which fruitful conversation can be derived from. One of the tactics I use for this is to take a Bible verse that the pastor quoted and then read the surrounding context of that verse within the Scriptures. Oftentimes, pastors don’t have enough time in their sermon to fully explore the underlying background to a verse. However, a small group can be the perfect opportunity to dig in deeper and learn more about God’s word. By recommending your groups to read those nearby verses of Scripture, the questions you create are surrounding the very same material that the pastor had used. As a result, the conversations that explore these topics will have a tendency to enrich and deepen the groups’ understanding of the pastor’s original message even more.

Sermon Discussion, not Sermon Competition
As a teacher, my mind has a tendency to think of new content that can explore the underlying message of the pastor’s sermon that week. Yet the reality I often have to remind myself of is that this doesn’t mean that it would actually be beneficial to include new content in the week’s sermon discussion guide. After all, our group members already spent 30-60 minutes that week listening to the pastor’s sermon. The discussion guide’s purpose is not to go off on a tangent but instead to facilitate engaging conversations that have the ability to hit the ground running. Even if new content could be spiritually relevant to the topic at hand, it actually can have an adverse effect of creating unnecessary pressure on our group leaders, essentially forcing them to preach our sermons for us. Instead, I try to craft questions in a way that edifies the pastor’s content. For example, “Pastor Sam/Sally says (insert spiritual truth here)…How might this look in our lives if we view it through the lens of (insert context/nearby Scripture here)?” Indeed, we must remember that we are not in competition with our pastors, but instead that we are teammates who have the marvelous opportunity to work together and amplify the reach of the good news within our small group communities.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Youth Empowered - Outreach Empower Team


This week’s post is the final installment of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we have released a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Thank you for tuning in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explored Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Outreach Empower Team

Service toward others is essential in the pursuit of being a follower of Christ. A quick glance through the Scriptures can help to reinforce this spiritual truth, and Jesus makes His viewpoint on the matter quite clear: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25, NIV). He doubles down on how we are called to deny the self in Luke 14:33, saying that “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” The Lord has appointed us to be stewards over the materials, time, monies, services, and other items that we have in our possession (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Service toward others effectively takes these items, and, through the vehicle of spiritual gifts, unconditionally shares these blessings in an interactive manner with other individuals so that God is purposefully given glory and praise.

But how often is service discussed or practiced in our youth ministries? When we allow students to utilize their God-given gifts outside of the walls of the church, they receive a deeper and more enriching opportunity to nurture and grow their faith through tangible actions that generate immediate results. In other words, they can see the impact of their faithfulness in real-time, and such experiences can be immensely powerful for a young teenager who is exploring their faith.

Understanding the importance of serving others has a heightened sense of urgency within an environment that prevents individuals from meeting in person. The lockdowns that we have been experiencing throughout 2020 have notably decreased our ability to build relationships and interact with others. Under the circumstances, we may realize that we think about others less often (a phrase commonly referred to as “out of sight, out of mind”). More than ever, the youth ministry of today is called to explain the importance of outreach to its students, as it can help combat the inward focus that we inevitably experience when we become isolated from others for extended periods of time.

But what does this mean for a youth ministry that is predominantly meeting remotely? Just because we are not interacting with others in person, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to serve others through the digital realm. For instance, older students in the Outreach Empower Team can work with their schools to help initiate a virtual mentorship/tutoring program (where one student offers a 1-hour free tutoring sessions to groups of 3 or 4 younger students via Zoom call). Or perhaps other members of the Outreach Empower Team can become involved with Shopping Angels to help deliver groceries to those who are unable to leave the house. Other opportunities that may be available can be found on youth focused service project sites such as, or the Youth Service America organization which also has a list of suggested activities to do within the #DoGoodFromHome challenge. 

If we continue to stay isolated within the pandemic, it may become difficult to find a sense of purpose. By helping our students understand the importance of service toward others, our youth ministries can help in generating a sense of purpose for those who are struggling to navigate through the isolation, the social distancing, and the lockdowns that we are experiencing. As we collectively make an intentional effort to take our eyes off of ourselves, it can help us better understand that the Lord can work powerfully in all circumstances and that we can still be content to serve Him through any season, challenging or not.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Youth Empowered - Worship Empower Team


This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Worship Empower Team
In recent weeks, our nation has begun to witness an increase in Covid-19 cases, prompting communities to start returning to a fully virtual format. As our churches recalibrate and adjust, youth ministries will once again be tasked to find creative ways to lead worship within the digital realm. But what does it mean to have meaningful worship within a student-led youth ministry? Author Melva Wilson Costen explains in her book African American Christian Worship that “in order for corporate worship to be authentic and empowering, it must be psychologically relevant to worshipers and commensurate with their lived experiences.” While such a perspective is of course applicable within any discussion surrounding worship, it becomes even more pertinent within the context of a youth ministry that serves Gen Z’ers (a generation that inherently expects a high level of relevancy in order to participate and engage).

Through my years in youth ministry, I would oftentimes hear a student say that they were interested in learning how to deepen their relationship with Christ. Naturally, a youth pastor can encourage their students to pray and read more Scripture (which they should) while also encouraging their students to participate in corporate worship (which of course is an excellent suggestion). However, simply ticking these actions off of a checklist doesn’t always mean that the student is doing them with a worshiping heart. What is just as important (possibly even more important) is the ability to prepare our hearts so that we willingly receive Jesus in our lives. True, the Holy Spirit is already there in the room, even if we attend service online. But God being in the room doesn’t always mean that He’s actively working in our students’ hearts. If we don’t first ensure that our students understand how to invite Him in, then we may be promoting a less-than-ideal behavior that our teens may carry with them into college: confusing God’s spiritual proximity with God’s active presence.

In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren says that “the heart of worship is surrender” and that the “three barriers that block our total surrender to God are fear, confusion, and pride.” It is here where a Worship Empower Team can assist in the facilitation of a level of surrender that directly addresses these three barriers. At its foundation, a Worship Empower Team is a group of students that are able to not only help their peers better understand the importance of worship, but also to lead the youth ministry in reverent praise of the Lord. The songs that the Worship Empower team leads everyone in can work towards accomplishing three key strategies: to trust in God, to choose to obey God, and to understand where one’s abilities end (and where God’s abilities begin). Extremely fitting for the year of 2020, these three strategies directly address the three aforementioned barriers that may be preventing someone from wholly surrendering.

Beyond the selection of songs can lay some additional tactics that the Worship Empower Team can put into practice. If your youth ministry meets while using an app that allows students to show their video feed, encourage them to turn it off during corporate worship so that attendees don’t have to think about the others who are watching them sing. If students are shy about letting others hear their perfect pitch singing voices, then suggest the use of the mute button (After all, our praise is meant for an audience of 1!). To minimize the number of possible distractions, perhaps the team can suggest for attendees to move to a quiet room in the house or to turn down the lights. In between songs, a testimony shared from a student on the Worship Empower Team can help amplify the importance of one of the three previously noted barrier breakers. In the end, to help sustain the required level of relevancy that Costen refers to in her book, a Worship Empower Team is called to help its youth ministry redirect its attention away from the fleshly desires of the self and more towards God. By empowering students to be the forefront leaders of this initiative, other students can see themselves in a similar light for their own faith journey, wholly surrendering themselves to God so that He might receive His due glory (even in the midst of a pandemic).

Friday, November 6, 2020

Youth Empowered - Welcome Empower Team

This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Welcome Empower Team 
While it may be too soon to begin to understand what impact the Covid-19 lockdowns have had on our students’ faith through the year 2020, the events surrounding the virus have been commonly referred to as an amplifier for the underlying challenges that were already present. Whether it be political tension, social justice awareness, mental health concerns, or even the dangers of addictions, it ends up feeling like the world’s problems have collectively placed a foot upon the gas pedal of hardship and accelerated everything to full speed. And while we know that Jesus still is the solution of the world’s turmoil, do our teenagers know this in their hearts, and do they understand how important this is for their friends as well?

If encouraging students to outright preach the gospel to their friends, it can feel awkward or forced if students are trying not to offend their peers or create unnecessary tension within their relationships. For a population of teenagers that are craving relational truth, interpersonal and testimonial-based evangelism may instead be an approach that is more preferred. Yet in the case where a student wants to share the gospel with their friend but is uncertain on how to approach them, then what can they do? Naturally, any youth worker would jump in and enthusiastically encourage the student to invite their friend to check out the next youth ministry event happening at their church. Yet such a move may be easier said than done.

As mentioned in Youth Empowered, the thing that students often guard more than their own thoughts and emotions is access to their friends list. In other words, students will not invite their friends until they have confidence that their church will care for their guests as much as (or more than) they can. After all, who would want to invite their best friend to a youth ministry service where the pastor makes the guest feel ashamed or where other students ignore them? If that guest is a non-believer, there’s a chance they may end up walking away from the event wondering why they were invited to begin with.

It is here where a Welcome Empower Team can be one of the most impactful Empower Teams for 2020’s relationally starved teens. Accessible, fun, and easy to connect with, members of the Welcome Empower Team have a natural desire to get to know others because they have a genuine love for people. Such individuals have a fascinating ability to disarm those with even the roughest of personalities, and they likely will exhibit similar qualities to the type of person that we referred to as a “person of peace” from the Leadership Empower Team. Their infectious enthusiasm and ability to take things in stride can make a guest feel like the most important individual in the room, an experience they won’t soon forget.

By quickly creating community within a digital environment, members of the Welcome Empower Team are some of the best individuals to make the church’s youth ministry into the type of environment that students will want to return to. If your youth ministry has a social media event, the Welcome Empower Team can banter with attendees before the event gets started by asking other students fun trivia questions within the chat. Party games like Jackbox or Among Us can create laughs and lasting memories for students who find enjoyment in video games. Or even a quick online icebreaker can help individuals to get to know one another better. By encouraging youth to actively welcome and engage their fellow peers, it can be a critical step in helping students to transition away from being mere consumers of ministry. As we navigate more towards being active partners with students, it is moments like these that can empower them to discover what the Holy Spirit might be doing among those that He has placed in their care, as well as how they can join in and contribute to the growth of their youth ministry.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Youth Empowered - Tech Empower Team

This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Tech Empower Team
It’s no secret that our younger generations today have deemed images and video as their preferred method of online communication. Looking back, we can identify the inflection point of where this began as the combination of Instagram’s release in 2010 and the United States crossing the 50% saturation level of smartphones in 2012. Even though Facebook and Myspace had already been around for almost a decade by this point, it is in 2012 where our youth began to utilize image-driven social media more often as a part of their daily interaction with one another. With the later emergence of “Live” features for Facebook and Instagram, and apps like TikTok, we’ve only accelerated even further down the path of technology as being the primary vehicle that we use to communicate with one another.

Considering the preferred usage of image and video apps among our students today, it is here that a Tech Empower Team within a student-led youth ministry can truly find its home and thrive. Even though the evil one may try to use technology to advance his agenda, the good news is that the church is just as equipped to utilize the same technology and minister to our youth in a way that effectively shares the gospel. But in the context of a digitally-powered student-led youth ministry, how does a Tech Empower Team differ from other teams like a Social Media Empower Team or Creative Empower Team that may already be using technology?

To help us differentiate between the teams, the Tech Empower Team’s role can be understood as one that collaborates and helps to enhance the packaging of the gospel. While a student on the Social Media Empower Team can do an impromptu live feed while holding their phone in their hand, a Tech Empower Team could instead record a student’s video in a studio setting with proper acoustics and lighting. While a student on the Teaching Empower Team can preach a sermon and share a recording of it on the social media accounts, a Tech Empower Team could make it more appealing and engaging by taking a highlight from that same sermon and adding closed captioning, graphics, sounds, and music to it (See this Instagram video from Transformation Church as an example). Or rather than burdening your church staff with additional sermon slides, banners, graphics, and other visual needs that the youth ministry may have, what if a student team is equipped to use the same technology and then given the resources and training to complete the task at hand? To help increase the likelihood of social media content being shared among the youth, it is worthy to consider the pride that the youth ministry will take in its own work when it is given the freedom to create videos for students, by students, and also edited with student expertise.

But the importance of technology in today’s world doesn’t stop at podcasting, streaming, and video or image editing. After all, a teen emerging into adulthood needs to know a sizable amount of “digital smarts” if they are to stay safe in the real world. To help in communicating this knowledge, the tech experts on a Tech Empower Team are the very best candidates to address these matters. With digital dangers such as phishing, ransomware, social media use, pornography, spyware, identity theft, IP address tracking, working from home, time theft, privacy concerns, and more, we cannot guarantee that our students are receiving an education on these vital topics from their parents. For a topic that is lighter than the hazards of the internet, perhaps some students may even be able to share tips and strategies on how they can focus and perform better with their digital school and online classes (Such as covering up one’s own image with a post-it note on their screen so that they are not getting “Zoom-fatigue” by constantly looking at themselves).

Some youth ministries may decide to wait in launching a Tech Empower Team if they do not have the technological resources or a sufficient amount of tech-savvy students identified to assist. Just as we noted in Youth Empowered, it becomes important to appoint a confident Empower Team Leader at the helm and to have a well-trained list of students who are available to fill in and respond in a timely manner.  Nevertheless, whether it is learning how to be a good digital citizen in the modern world or polishing the content of the youth ministry to make it look better and sound better, the Tech Empower Team can quickly take your youth ministry to the next level in its ability to evangelize and engage the extremely visually attentive youth population of our digital world.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Youth Empowered - Teaching Empower Team


This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Teaching Empower Team
In Youth Empowered, we established that the opportunity to teach in the pulpit is one of the most spiritually weighty places to conduct ministry within the church. While this would not always mean that it is necessarily the most influential or most powerful place to conduct ministry within the church, it certainly is one of the most outward-facing areas (and oftentimes, one of the most scrutinized). Should we add in the element of the internet, then this reality becomes amplified. Not only can a sermon be posted and viewed by almost anyone in the world, but we also must live with the haunting reality that the internet never forgets. Should any complications arise with a sermon or if someone takes particular offense to a teaching that is shared on social media, then the church may find itself receiving unwanted attention from outside influencers.

Nevertheless, allowing students to teach is an essential element to a student-led youth ministry. The youth ministry has the unique opportunity to be a training ground for students to utilize and hone their spiritual giftings, and the spiritual gift of teaching is no exception. Even if a student says something slightly awkward or something in a tone that could have been said a little less abrasively, we must not be afraid of these scenarios. We must not sacrifice opportunity at the altar of perfection. Indeed, it benefits the church long-term to acknowledge that we all have to start somewhere (When I reflect on my own beginnings, I sincerely hope that no one remembers my first sermon…it was absolutely disastrous!). By keeping a long-term perspective on your church’s vision, the guidance of you and your Teaching Empower Team Leader could train up the church's next generation of small group leaders, pastors, youth ministers, evangelists, and Sunday school teachers simply by offering more chances for students to share the word of God in front of others.

Yet in the context of a high-tech world, what can be especially exciting is that a digitally-powered student-led youth ministry can arguably have more opportunities for students to teach than a youth ministry model that meets only in-person. While students may feel awkward or intimidated to speak in front of others at an in-person youth service, the concept of speaking in front of a camera on an electronic device doesn’t seem quite as foreign to today’s youth. Naturally, one or two students could speak in place of the youth pastor during one of the youth ministry’s normally scheduled online services. However, there is more of a chance for the youth to be able to reach their peers and impact their online community through shorter videos posted to social media. By partnering with their Empower Team Leader and the Social Media Empower Team, five-minute sermons, small devotionals, youth ministry Bible studies, and even testimonies can be delivered by the Teaching Empower Team to a captive audience that is looking for content on their social media feeds that is life-giving and relationally true.

When you meet with your student leaders and your fellow youth ministers next, ask which of the two scenarios are more likely to cause a teenager to pause and view the video that is posted on the youth ministry’s social media account: A devotion read by the youth pastor, or the same devotion that is read and discussed by one of the students within the youth ministry? While a youth pastor sharing a quick devotion or their latest sermon on social media is certainly truth-filled and life-giving, it may not have enough of a relational component to it in order to cause a student to pause and listen. Our students follow hundreds (sometimes even thousands!) of other individuals on social media. With a limited amount of time to scroll through their feed between classes or before bedtime, they will more likely view the content that possesses the level of relational truth that they are seeking within their social media consumption. Even though a youth pastor’s video can certainly be used by the Holy Spirit to pierce the heart of a student who is seeking answers, it is just as likely (if not more likely) that the combination of information, application, and a powerful testimony of a fellow peer can strike a resonant chord within the hearts of our youth as well.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Youth Empowered - Prayer Empower Team


This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Prayer Empower Team
When we encourage students to become involved in ministry, what activities do they think of? Perhaps they imagine outreach opportunities, or worship nights, or even taking advantage of the chance to share the gospel with their friends at school. But in the logic-heavy science-driven culture of the West, would prayer be considered a form of ministry by our youth? As we explored in Youth Empowered, one of our goals as youth ministers is to help our students understand that we are living in the midst of a spiritual battlefield. While we may not be able to see the spiritual realm, the fact is that Jesus spoke quite openly about spiritual warfare within Scripture. Indeed, within the four gospels, we see Jesus in numerous power encounters as He heals the sick, raises the dead, exorcises demons, and prophetically reads the hearts of those He is speaking with.

On one such occasion, we see in Mark 2 a paralyzed man that is brought to Jesus by his friends. Upon seeing the extraordinary faith of the man’s four friends, Jesus says to the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven. When He senses the nearby religious leaders thinking that such a statement is blasphemy, He challenges them and heals the paralytic man to show that He does indeed have the power and authority to forgive sins. Today, we do not have the opportunity to go visit Jesus in person like those in Capernaum had in Mark 2, two thousand years ago. But the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and His resurrection allows us to have a relationship with Him that is just as active and real as it would be if He were with us in the flesh. James 5:13-16 states “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV).

Teaching our students to understand this spiritual truth may help them in grasping the concept that prayer with the Lord today is just as effective as visiting Jesus in the flesh was two thousand years ago. Similarly, it is also true to help them understand that praying for one another is just as much a form of ministry as it is to conduct outreach for someone in-person. It is here where a Prayer Empower Team can shine within a digitally powered student-led youth ministry. Even though praying for one another may seem a bit foreign for some students, we are in need to help them learn to practice this spiritual discipline now, more than ever.

However, being on the Prayer Empower Team would not suggest that prayer requests are simply divvied out for the group members to occasionally revisit when the person has a free moment between Fortnite rounds. Instead, we must remember that Matthew 18:20 is just as relevant in the digital setting as it is in-person. Meeting on Zoom or other video chat programs, students and their Empower Team Leader can gather in the name of the Lord and focus on the spiritual needs that they and their youth ministry have for that week. While the group can certainly meet on a weekly basis to pray for the upcoming service, it can go further than that. Perhaps the team can take turns at being a disruptor on students’ social media feeds by posting an occasional “flash prayer” video that compels the youth ministry’s followers to stop and pray for 10-20 seconds. Or maybe the Empower Team Leader can set up and oversee a text-only phone number, where the youth ministry can text in prayer requests (Google Voice is an easy way to set something like this up without giving out anyone’s personal number). Or maybe the team can take over a small portion of a youth service once a quarter and lead their fellow students in a new method of praying by giving them a template and a few minutes to try it out.

When it comes to prayer within our youth ministry, we are encouraged to remain focused on two key items. First, we must ensure that our students won’t graduate from high school with the misguided idea that prayer is merely a shopping list of wants and desires that we take to God. Instead, we introduce them to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit and help them understand that it can be engaged on the battlefield of spiritual warfare, even if through digital means. Second, while we are encouraged to visit the Lord privately in our prayer closet, corporate prayer is nevertheless a vital component to the communal experience of our faith. Thus, we must be bold to pray in front of others and help our students become comfortable to pray in front of (and for) their peers. As we know through Youth Empowered, students are looking for ways to work out their faith through experiences that are shared among others. Satan will do everything in his power to prevent students from praying with one another, for it is likely that our youth may experience the Holy Spirit in a powerful way during their formative years if they did. Just as how bold Jesus was in addressing the spiritual realm, let us too be bold in helping our students understand the bigger picture of the spiritual realm, where we will all soon reside for the rest of eternity.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Youth Empowered - Leadership Empower Team

This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Leadership Empower Team
As an expert on the topic of leadership, one of John Maxwell’s more recognizable quotes is on the matter of influence, where he says that “the true measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” Those who are familiar with some of his writings will know another one of his common principles, where he states that someone gaining position within an organization does not automatically mean that the person will gain influence along with it (in fact, he explains that “Position” is only the first of five levels of leadership). If we were to view these leadership principles through the lens of online youth ministry, it might cause us to pause for a moment and ask the question, “As a youth pastor, am I being the best leader I can be for my youth ministry?” Perhaps another way of addressing this question may be to discuss how we can gain influence within an online-oriented student-led youth ministry. To help us accomplish this, let’s explore the digital perspective of a Leadership Empower Team.

First, it can help to acknowledge who the real leader is within the world that we are operating in. As a youth pastor, you may have influence within the 4 walls of your church, however it is possible that you may have next to no influence over the youth within the digital realm. Students are spending an increasing amount of time online (especially in a post-pandemic culture). If your youth ministry does not have a digital presence, then a large portion of your students’ lives may be out of your reach. If we were to apply Maxwell’s principles on influence here, then it is true that the further away something is from our ministry, the less influence we hold over it. Once we acknowledge that our students are identifiable as leaders in this realm, it can then allow us to more effectively bridge the digital gap that may exist between us and our students. Indeed, it is when we see our students as partners in our ministry—instead of merely recipients of our ministry—that we create a proper environment for a Leadership Empower Team to thrive.

Second, to successfully launch a digitally-powered Leadership Empower Team, we are to identify the students who are “persons of peace.” Reflecting the type of personality described in Luke 10:6, these trustworthy individuals consistently show commitment, character, competency, and care toward their peers. Through their natural ability to uplift those that they interact with online, students who apply the radical love of Christ to their everyday lives will likely develop a wide network of friends and followers as they post genuine content that engages the hearts of other students within their community. These are the students who not only have the ability to be a positive influence within their world, but they also are willing to step up and fill such a role if given the opportunity to do so.

Third, we are called to invite these key influencers to be a part of the Leadership Empower Team. As the team meets on a semiregular basis, these students have an innate ability to approach youth ministry with fresh eyes, providing guidance to the leadership and making suggestions that can help drive the direction of the youth ministry for the next 3-6 months. Topics to discuss perhaps can include ideas for future sermon series that are relevant to a post-pandemic teen lifestyle, strategies that can mobilize students who are already in the youth ministry’s social media networks, or even methods on how to reach nonbelievers within each of their respective schools. Not only do they represent the collective voice of the student population within the youth ministry, but the youth pastor also shares the task of vision-casting with this team, allowing them to provide updates directly to the student body on where the youth ministry is heading and also where the Lord might be taking them in the near future.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that students have spiritual gifts too, and certain gifts like apostleship, leadership, administration, discernment, and prophecy may not feel like they have a true home in many of the other Empower Teams that are available for the students to choose from. A Leadership Empower Team that embraces the online needs of today’s youth will not only grant opportunities for students like these to utilize their spiritual gifts, but it can also provide invaluable insight to the church staff by keeping it directly connected with its students on an ongoing basis.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Youth Empowered - Creative Empower Team


This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Creative Empower Team:

At the heart of the Creative Empower Team, a safe environment is made available for a group of students to be able to express their God-given freedom to imagine and create. Yet in a digital environment, a certain level of precaution is necessary in order to present the gospel effectively and to protect your youth ministry. After all, in today’s cultural climate, saying the wrong thing or posting a video that the world finds too offensive can draw unnecessary attention to your ministry or even your church. Thus, it becomes absolutely essential to have an Empower Team Leader in place who is up to speed with current events and who is comfortable in their ability to teach students on how to responsibly use technology to express their creativity. Discernment is key to knowing what content to make public, and erring on the side of caution is naturally recommended.

The medium through which to express the youth ministry’s creativity is a vital component to the Creative Empower Team. While there are benefits to using Facebook Live, Instagram Live, or other live chat streaming apps that are popular, this method of online ministry is geared more towards a one-directional approach to streaming. Other than viewers texting in their comments for the host to read and respond to, a smaller amount of interaction takes place when one member of the meeting (the host) has a more authoritative position of communication than the other participants. Certainly, there’s a place for this type of digital interaction when teaching or presenting information, however it is less-than-ideal for its ability to encourage and foster creativity.

Instead, we are called today to boldly embrace more interactive methods to meet online, where students can take more ownership of the conversation. The reason for this is due to the rapid emergence of technology in the last ten years has brought with it a certain realization for today’s youth. Rather than being on the receiving end of information and entertainment, they are finding that they have the ability to be content creators themselves. A Creative Empower Team that forges an online student-led youth ministry will realize this key development in the identity of today’s youth and capitalize on it. Instead of thinking of ways to deliver engaging content that the youth will want to tune in to, a Creative Empower Team invites students into a community-driven experience that creates faith-based content together. Something like a Christian Meme creation competition could allow all of your students to jump in (even those who tend to say they aren’t creative). Or perhaps inviting a passionate lyricist to post their spoken word can inspire and stir the hearts of other students to embrace the art of writing. Online meeting apps can work brilliantly to host a digital “improv night” where all participants can see each other’s video feeds and participate in one of the games. Or maybe the Creative Empower Team can utilize programs like Zoom for the “webinar” functionality and put on a digital theatre production for individuals that purchase their tickets in advance.

As we explored in Youth Empowered, creativity is a gift from God. No other lifeform on earth possesses the creative capability that humans do because we are the only ones made in the image of God. A Creative Empower Team that moves to share the Gospel online is a team that discovers new ways to present the good news. Similar to how the youth of today learn and formulate their understanding of the world around them, this communal effort towards discovering their faith allows them to apply the Scriptures to their lives in real-time, giving them on-the-job training that makes their faith in God more tangible and relevant to their day-to-day lives.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Youth Empowered - Hospitality Empower Team


This week’s post is a continuation of our previous post, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Hospitality Empower Team

In Youth Empowered, we asserted that the Hospitality Empower Team has the ability to play a large role in creating a safe and open space for students who are searching for a caring community. But how can we invite students to feel the presence of Christ within a digital community? If we were to ask such a question for our in-person side of youth ministry, we would likely find ourselves gravitating toward the practice of engagement. When we meet an individual at their needs and engage in a manner that honors them and celebrates their unique personhood, it lovingly informs them that they belong and that they have a God-given place within the community of believers. With in-person youth ministry, for example, this could look like you and your spouse grabbing some pizzas and inviting the students over to your house to watch a movie and play a few party games. But to live life with each other online, things can be done a little differently. Perhaps the Hospitality Empower Team can moderate a youth ministry Discord channel, where students can be a part of a church gaming community and play alongside their Christian peers. Or maybe the Empower Team can setup a “Homework Club” on Zoom, where students can login and help one another with homework or simply just encourage one another as they study.

Similar to in-person youth ministry, the key to building digital bridges is to engage. While the examples we just mentioned above are “in-the-moment events” that happen between two or more individuals in real time, one of the most powerful ways to build digital bridges on an ongoing basis is to genuinely interact with one another on social media. After all, if the Hospitality Empower Team’s goal is to invite guests to live their lives together with us, it only makes sense that we venture to where a large portion of our students’ time is currently being spent.

Imagine being a teenager in today’s world who is struggling to find their identity or find a community where they can feel safe and understood. By the grace of God, you find your way to a church’s website and their youth ministry’s social media page. After checking it out, you decide to connect with the youth ministry by becoming an online follower. Next, pretend that you receive five to ten follow requests from peers within that church’s youth ministry. This pleasantly surprises you, to be acknowledged by a community that reaches out and makes an effort to connect. And while this by itself is flattering, imagine then what it would be like to notice that the students begin to not only “like” your posts, but also to comment regularly on your content, to provide encouraging remarks when you share your heart on social media, and to even tag you in content that they know you would be interested in. Suddenly, social media is no longer this place where we speak into a void, but instead it becomes a vibrant community where its members genuinely connect and build relationship with each other.

Yet for some teenagers that spend countless hours online, this is easier said than done. “Following” someone on social media can be a big deal in today’s age, for two reasons. First, from the perspective of the public eye, other teens can see this and there’s a chance that they’ll think we are condoning or agreeing with all of the content of this person we are now following. In the “cancel culture” that we live in today, the implications of this reality are weighed heavily (especially by teens who are trying to jockey for position or keep up appearances with one another). Second, from the perspective of the self, this means that we agree to have this individual’s content show up in our feeds. Should we not take a liking to the things that they share, this can be frustrating for us to see such content come across our screens.

However, this conundrum isn’t new. As a matter of fact, this struggle of keeping up one’s image was experienced in Jesus’ day as well! It’s just that in the first century, the Pharisees would keep up their image within the community to show how good they practiced their religion. By associating oneself with the sinners, the lepers, or the sexually immoral, they would be at risk of being branded as one of them (i.e. Mark 2: 13-17, Luke 15:1-2, etc). To prevent any rumor of this from rising up, the Pharisees would simply solve the problem by dodging these outcasts and staying away from them. But Jesus was different. Not only did He go to the lepers and the sinners, He healed them in such a manner that the individuals were able to be welcomed and incorporated back into Jewish culture. If a person’s social media feed has disagreeable content that lacks a Christian essence, do we dodge them out of fear of public opinion, like the Pharisees did to sinners? Or do we lovingly move toward these individuals, minister to them, and introduce them to Jesus so that their hearts are healed and their social media accounts become transformed and begin to share content that is filtered through the lens of Christianity?

To strategically utilize social media for hospitality may be a new concept for our youth, for they have grown accustomed to the idea that social media is for gaining followers and interacting with their followers in such a way that it benefits the self instead of the goal of building up the other. It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t just surface level “friending” online. In a way, this is returning to the good-natured founding principles of social media, circa 2004. Here, we build genuine, ongoing relationships in an intentionally orchestrated effort that engages and interacts with one another through digital means. Looking at hospitable social media use within a student-led youth ministry requires students to think outside the box. However, if the Hospitality Empower Team remains consistent, nonbelievers' perception of the church will improve over time. Because of your students’ willingness to be genuine in their engagement, their friends will inevitably become more intrigued to know who this Jesus is and what their youth ministry movement is doing within the community.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Youth Empowered - Bonus Chapter!


Since March of this year, many churches have been embracing more efforts that foster online community with their students. While we presented a few ideas for online youth ministry events earlier this year, the fall semester is beginning this week and many churches are still meeting online. Rather than operating with the mindset that we are planning for single-day virtual events, we have been shifting more toward an internet-based community that continues to meet online every week (or at least under a hybrid model that has some level of virtual interaction).

But should the youth pastor organize and manage all aspects of their online youth ministry? Readers of this blog and Youth Empowered are familiar with the argument that students are in fact some of the best candidates who can help manage the youth ministry’s online presence. And while Youth Empowered offers a breakdown of ten potential Empower Teams and how each team can contribute to the establishment of a student-led youth ministry, there is still room for us to explore what some of the digital components might look like for each of these ten teams. Because of this, I’m thrilled to announce that an entire new chapter of Youth Empowered will be released right here through the Focusing on Jesus blog, for free! Spanning over the course of the next ten weeks, the chapter will be published in sections through a series of posts on this blog, so be sure to tune in and let your fellow youth workers know!  

To help get us started, we’ll first cover the Empower Team that plays a key role in establishing a youth ministry's online presence. For the remainder of our chapter, we will find that this team will integrate itself with each of the other Empower Teams and their respective digital components. Without this team, your youth ministry’s ability to effectively share the gospel with today’s youth online would be severely hampered.

Social Media Empower Team
Perhaps one of the most versatile teams within a digital student-led youth ministry, the Social Media Empower Team has the potential to reach the unchurched and lost in some of the most creative and engaging ways. Last year, we explored how a youth ministry can set up a team like this, and the post can be found here. Since the content in this earlier article is relevant to our digital approach to Empower Teams, it felt fitting to bring this article back into the spotlight.

In the context of a post-Covid world, a Social Media Empower Team can be exceptionally powerful. Within a digital youth ministry, it can function as the central hub of communication for an audience that is spending more time than ever on social media. Especially during an era of heightened confrontation and warring political viewpoints, the social media account of your youth ministry can operate as a beacon of hope and positivity on your students’ social media feeds.

While it’s expected for the youth pastor to hop online and say something faith-based, there is something arresting about a fellow student who posts something that uplifts and encourages their peers. It is an inescapable reality that our students will always have an advantage over us in reaching their friends on social media. By handing over the keys to your youth ministry’s social media accounts and then providing guidance on how students can post content that is in alignment with the youth ministry’s vision, your church could begin to effectively minister to a group of young individuals that you may have never been able to reach before.

Stay tuned as we begin to outline more digital characteristics and ideas for nine other Empower Teams in the coming weeks!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Shift to Essential Small Groups


As our churches cautiously navigate their way back to “business-as-usual,” one particular area of ministry within the church has become especially crucial for the upcoming season: the church’s small group ministry. In fact, this Fall may be one of the most important seasons ever in the history of your church’s small group ministry. Let’s explore why this might be the case and what we can do to help promote the small group ministry through the next few months.

The Way Church Was Made to Be
Acts Chapter 2 is one of the best sources we have to observe how the early church began and how the first Christians practiced their newfound faith in Christ. One verse in particular that highlights this time period is 2:46, which says “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (NIV). It is important to pause and note the two activities that the church of Acts 2 pursued here. Not only did they come together for larger gatherings in the temple courts, but they also gave equal importance to house-to-house meetings (in other words, small groups!). From what we see here in Scripture, the foundations of the Lord's church incorporated both of these activities, and neither of the two were given any more weight than the other. Indeed, when one activity is given more preference than the other, imbalance occurs and the church can lose its ability to spread the gospel effectively. Too much of an emphasis towards the temple court would not value relationship, while too much of an emphasis toward small groups would not value teaching and instruction. Both are necessary, and both make the faith of Christianity tangible and actionable.

Starving for Relationship
Similar to how a garden is prepared, we must first till the land. By doing so, it breaks up the roots and weeds, it aerates the soil, and it helps in digging up the larger rocks that would have prevented our crops from flourishing. In other words, by doing this, the soil becomes ready to receive the seeds that we sow. Between the lockdowns and working from home, some individuals have not been meeting with friends and associates on a regular basis for almost 6 months. For those who are energized by being around others, this can take a toll on the spirit. On the other end of the social spectrum, even introverts may find themselves retreating from relationships more and not realizing why. The spiritual impact of Covid-19 has tilled our hearts in a way that allows us to be more aware of the importance of relationships, and the church’s small group ministry is now primed to positively impact our communities in a tremendous way. Because of how relationally starved the church community has become, it is likely that the transformation experienced within small group relationships this year may be even greater than ever before.

What Can Pastors Do?
If ever we become dizzy or disoriented, we cling to an object that is stable or something that is rooted in the ground. The post-Covid world has shaken us up. While we may be disoriented at this time, we can rest assured that Christ is our solid rock and our fortress who is unwavering. As things in our lives become more disorienting, the stability of Jesus will become more appealing. With recent events reminding us how the early church grew so effectively, pastors today can take this opportunity to stir up change within their own congregation (good change!). Since Satan won’t allow people to naturally gravitate towards God, now is the perfect opportunity to convey to our congregations that intentional change is no longer optional and that a church that emphasizes “temple courts” too heavily is no longer relevant. By helping our communities understand that the “new normal” is indeed a life that is drastically different than 2019, we are collectively challenged to see life through a new lens: one that strives for the healthy balance of church that Acts 2:46 promotes…one that makes a concerted effort to grow and transform spiritually by pursuing meaningful and genuine relationships through small groups.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Preparing for God's Judgment


While all of us will experience the Lord’s judgment after this life passes at either the white throne judgment (Revelation 20:12-13) or the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10), there are also moments during our lives where we experience smaller moments of judgment. Last week we asked the question of if God’s judgment was fair, highlighting that we see examples of three kinds of judgment throughout the Bible: micro, macro, and grand (for the individual, nation/group, and world, respectively). This week, we will revisit the three and unpack what we can personally do in order to better prepare ourselves, should we experience one of the three scenarios.

Preparing for Micro-Judgment
More than likely, each of us are going to experience some degree of micro-judgment during our lives. But should we think that the slightest mistake will condemn us to eternal damnation? Or should we be so fearful, that we live in a constant state of worry? Of course not. As a quick refresher from last week,

Regardless of the scale of His response, the pattern of how the Lord acts is consistent. First, we see throughout the Scriptures that God chooses grace and decides to bless humanity out of love; second, we find ourselves abusing His grace because of sin; next, God warns his people and calls us to repentance through the prophets that He appoints; finally, judgment is dispersed in an effort to bring His children back to Him and restore the relationship between God and His people.

Whether this is for a nation or for an individual, His pattern is consistent. If we find ourselves adopting a lifestyle of sin where things like violence, sexual immorality, substance/digital addictions, or other sins become prevalent within our lives, there’s a good chance that the Lord will send a prophet our way who will implore us to stop. The person may be a pastor, a friend, or even our spouse, but the message will nevertheless be clear: repent before it is too late. For as we see in Ephesians 5:8-20, it is inevitable that secret sins will be discovered and revealed. Perhaps our actions may have been so severe that we are unable to escape some degree of correction, however our humility in seeking the Lord first will play a large role in our ability to find peace and avoid additional cycles of micro-judgment in the future. Thus, the very best way to prepare for micro-judgment is to repent and seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).

Preparing for Macro-Judgment
We don’t need to navigate too deep into the word of God before we find examples of entire nations being judged for their pervasive sinfulness. While critics of the Bible focus on examples like the destruction of the Canaanites or Sodom and Gomorrah, we must not forget that God was just as consistent in the judging of His own chosen people whenever the Israelites would live in a state of sin (See books of Judges, Isaiah, and Jeremiah). Yet just as we see in Isaiah 6:12-13, the Lord will indeed identify and raise up a remnant during an instance of macro-judgment. Such a remnant is a “holy seed,” composed of those who truly rely on the Lord (Isaiah 10:20-21). Thus, under macro-judgment, the call to repent and seek first the kingdom of God becomes just as applicable and vital for the remnant as it was for the individual experiencing micro-judgment.

Preparing for Grand Judgment
According to Jesus, it is futile to try and predict the coming of the end times (Matthew 24:42-44). Instead of us worrying about the exact timing of such an event, Jesus offers parables to help us understand the more important takeaways on the topic. One such parable is offered in Matthew 24:45-51, where He tells of two different kinds of servants: one type who continues to work while his master is away, and the other type who decides to be wicked and abuse the master’s trust and resources. Naturally, the former is blessed, while the latter is judged accordingly. Only two grand judgment events are described in the Bible: The flood in Genesis 7 and the passing of the earth in Revelation 21. In both scenarios, humanity is on a course that will inevitably destroy itself and the Lord is stirred to directly intervene. While no one is able to evade an instance of judgment on such a grand scale, we look to Noah from the flood and God’s sheep from the end times to understand that the righteous servants who continue to serve the Lord will indeed receive favor and/or blessing surrounding the time of trial (Matthew 24:40-41, 25:34). Thus, the pattern officially solidifies itself for a third time as we note that repenting and seeking first the kingdom of God will indeed be the very best way to prepare for grand judgment.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Is God's Judgment Fair?


One theme that the Bible clearly communicates is God’s consistency. While it is consistent in showing His remarkable display of grace through both the Old Testament and the New Testament, it also shows the consistency in which He corrects His children if they move too far away from Him. Some may call this pruning, while others call it judgment. It is not an easy topic to traverse, and due to its delicate nature, we will spend a few weeks exploring the conversation further.

The Lord’s Response
A casual reading through the word of God will allow us to find varying degrees of chastisement from the Lord as He responds to sin. We see it at the micro-level for an individual when David pridefully counts the troops at his disposal or when he commits adultery with Bathsheba. We also see it at a macro-level in the books of Judges, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, where a nation must come to terms with the effects of their sinful actions. However, we also see this at the grandest level, where the entire world finds itself experiencing the full display of the Lord’s might (such as the flood in Genesis 7 or the passing of the earth in Revelation 21). Regardless of the scale of His response, the pattern of how the Lord acts is consistent. First, we see throughout the Scriptures that God chooses grace and decides to bless humanity out of love; second, we find ourselves abusing His grace because of sin; next, God warns his people and calls us to repentance through the prophets that He appoints; finally, judgment is dispersed in an effort to bring His children back to Him and restore the relationship between God and His people.

Through Parenting, We Understand
While some may view judgment as a display of selfishness from a deity who is power hungry, it becomes rather easy to understand what the Lord is doing through the course of human history by relating His actions to how we parent and raise our own children. Without the need for our sons and daughters to first earn our favor, we train them up in the Lord, instill good values, and shower them with love and blessings. Without question, we sacrifice for our kids unconditionally. Yet as our children begin to abuse our good graces or become careless, prideful, or even hurtful, we discipline them and explain the reasons for why they are being punished. If the degree of our response reasonably correlates to the severity of their transgression, they will grow to understand that we are fair and just in our parenting, and the relationship between us and our children will not be jeopardized.

Is God's Judgment Fair?
Asking if judgment is fair is a tough question to answer. Perhaps influenced by the worldviews from which we are raised in, an individual living in the Western world may say that micro-judgment is fair, while an individual living in the Eastern world may say that macro-judgment is fair. But is it really correct to ask if it is fair to us? After all, we can only answer this question through a sin-tinted lens that was inherited from Adam and Eve. While some feel strongly that they shouldn’t be judged for the sins of others, and while others feel strongly that an individual shouldn’t be judged if the person was acting for the betterment of the group, it is only Jesus Christ who has the ability to judge with perfect fairness (John 5:22; II Timothy 4:1, 8; Jude 14-15, Revelation 5:5-7). In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s “will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” but do we really mean it? It is when we trust in Jesus to carry out His divine appointment that we will begin to notice a shift in our prayers: rather than asking if His judgment is fair, our hearts will cry out with a kingdom-like perspective, praying for nationwide repentance, interceding on behalf of our family members and peers, and asking the Holy Spirit to continue chiseling away at our own pride and sinfulness. May God have mercy on us.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Boosting Our Spiritual Immune Systems

Just as how we each have an immune system that supports our physical health, we also have an immune system that supports our spiritual health. First, it is important to recognize that an immune system does not automatically build itself up on its own. For example, if we want to build up our physical immune system, we go outside, we take vitamins, we eat healthy, we exercise, and we allow our bodies to fight off the seasonal common cold or the occasional flu. Even though antibiotics can help us to quickly defeat a bug, prolonged dependence on antibiotics can impact our bodies in two ways: first, they can sometimes destroy the good bacteria that we have in our system; and second, our immune system may have a hard time in effectively fighting off even smaller infections due to an established dependency on antibiotics. In other words, our immune systems can become lazy if we never let it run its natural course in fighting any of the bugs that find their way into our bodies.

Similar to the activities that can help in boosting our physical immune system, we can build up our spiritual immune system through spiritual disciplines such as reading Scripture, engaging in prayer, attending service, worshiping the Lord, serving in the kingdom of God, and even joining a small group. While we may be able to enjoy more nights on the couch or dodge the occasional conflict that arises when building relationships with others, refraining from doing these practices for long periods of time can impact our souls in two ways: first, we lose touch with Jesus and we begin to retreat from our relationship with Him; and second, our spiritual immune system may discover that it’s unable to effectively walk through even smaller spiritual struggles and challenges that inevitably find their way into our daily lives. Just as how a lazy physical immune can be decimated by something as small as a common cold, a lazy spiritual immune system can be absolutely wrecked by an event that disrupts the normal day-to-day.

There’s one person I know who was once laid off from her corporate job. What was remarkable was that she not only had faith that she was being led to an even better job, but she actually praised the Lord through the entire process and even witnessed to the supervisors who were letting her go! However, I also know of another person who found himself unemployed and was wrecked by the spiritual struggle that ensued, unable to function and, on some days, even felt unable to get out of bed to do everyday tasks. But this isn’t just pertaining to employment. Indeed, this could extend into other areas of our lives such as the arrival of a new baby, severe weather catastrophes, the loss of a loved one, the accumulation of stressful projects at work or at home, or other areas. Just as how our physical immune system is there to be the first line of defense against the onslaught of germs and pollutants that our bodies come into contact with, our spiritual immune system is there to be the first line of defense against spiritual struggles. By boosting our spiritual immune systems on a consistent basis, we will be able to interpret our current struggles from a heaven-centric viewpoint, to more clearly see how today’s events impact our mission for the kingdom of God, and to bless others through the power of our actions and our testimony.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Partnering With Parents in Youth Ministry

We may be ministering to students within youth ministry, however we must not forget that we are actually ministering alongside parents, to their students. When we view youth ministry from this perspective, parents suddenly become co-ministers in the pursuit of the youth ministry’s vision and it becomes more natural to look for opportunities to work together. Let us explore three crucial areas that require our attention when partnering with parents in youth ministry.

Although it is no secret that properly planned promotion can increase attendance for events, it is helpful to remember that parents can assist in the promotion of the events as well. But how can we let them know of what’s up and coming? The five or ten minutes after service can be one of the most powerful windows of time to connect and build rapport with parents. While this can be effective, there still exists great benefit from a communication system that informs parents of youth ministry needs and upcoming events. A quarterly calendar is very helpful, and a monthly publication like an email or a newsletter can greatly assist in keeping everyone on track. Furthermore, if an event has been promoted within your prior communications, then a final friendly reminder can provide that extra little bit of help in keeping the event at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

According to AAA, only 54% of teens are getting their license before turning 18, which means that parents are oftentimes the individuals driving the students to youth services and youth-based events. By respecting the parents’ calendars through a consistent communications system, we are able to create a partnership with the students’ parents instead of vying for their students’ availability. If the parents are unaware or under-informed regarding the events of the youth ministry, the family’s household calendar may not be able to make the youth ministry a priority (Or the parents may not be available to drive their students to the events). A way to work around this may be to ask youth leaders and students who already have their license to assist in picking up other students. Yet even with this suggestion, a proper communications system between us and our leaders would still be necessary if students need to be connected to various drivers.

When we don’t have a communications system in place that keeps parents in the loop, this can potentially affect the finances of both the families and the church. Last minute notifications sent to parents that ask for money can come off as disrespectful. After all, many households plan their budgets a month in advance. If the church forgets to promote an event ahead of time and then at the last minute realizes that too few students have submitted their deposit, an urgent “Sorry that we forgot to remind you…” email may not go over well. If a family’s budget is set and it does not have wiggle room for extra expenditures, it may place a household in an awkward situation where they have to put groceries on the credit card in order to be able to send their student to the youth ministry event. Such a scenario could potentially impact the church’s finances if parents have to unexpectedly reallocate funds from their normal tithe in order to secure the necessary funds. Finally, communicating financial needs well in advance can lessen the load of the youth ministry’s overall budget if more students are able to pay for the event without needing to ask for a scholarship.

Parents want to be prayer partners with us. They want to help intercede for their student and to help pray over the entire youth ministry. By keeping them informed, this can help the youth ministry stay in alignment with the church’s vision. When we do this, we invite and encourage the parents to be co-ministers who work alongside us rather than in competition with us.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Don't Bury Those Talents

The parables that Jesus taught are relevant, poignant, and heart piercing. One of the parables that contains multiple layers of application is known as the parable of the talents, featured in Matthew 25:14-30. In it, Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusted large sums of money to his servants while he went out of town. We find out upon the man’s return that two of the three servants who received talents had ended up actually increasing their master’s wealth. While the first two proudly reported on their successful productivity, the third man fearfully admitted that he did nothing with the funds. Instead, he buried the money and protected it for the time that his master was away. Surprisingly, we read here that the master ends up scolding the third servant and then proceeds to cast him out. Even though this parable discusses money and investing, it does not have to be interpreted this literally. Let us dive deeper through the lens of youth ministry.

According to their ability
Perhaps one of the more passed-over elements of this parable can be found in verse 15 where the master gives varying amounts of money to his servants, to “each according to his ability” (emphasis mine). In other words, the master provided differing amounts of talents because he was familiar with the abilities of each individual person. Once we acknowledge this, it’s no surprise that he gave only 1 talent to the third servant; perhaps the master sensed the third servant’s hesitation. Maybe because of this, he proceeded to give a smaller amount so that the servant could start small and build his confidence.

Isn’t this what God does for us? For those who are more-seasoned in their faith, would you have run away if God told you what you were going to be doing for Him in ten years? God knows our spiritual gifts and what He calls us to fulfill is perfectly suited to our capabilities. Yet if God does this for us, then do we extend the same prayerful consideration for our own students? Before challenging a student to evangelize in the streets, have we first made sure that they understand the basics of the Gospel? Before asking them to invite their friends to youth service, have we taught them to serve the visitor so that newcomers are lovingly welcomed and cared for? In the parable, the master knows what each of his servants are ready for. Similarly, we too are called to keep a pulse on our students and to extend responsibilities that patiently meet them in the season of their current spiritual readiness.

Different Harvests are Okay
In the parable we see that the first two servants reported different returns on their investments and we also see that the master was pleased with their efforts. From this we can understand two key points. First, we see that serving the kingdom of God is not a competition and that it is okay to bear fruit that correlates with our current abilities and current resources. Second, the master chooses to bless the both of them abundantly, regardless of the fact that the gains between the two servants reflected different amounts. While we may not explicitly know what the servants eventually received, the master’s commendation is the same for the both of them. Instead of giving favor to our top two students who appear to be on the path of pursuing full-time ministry, are we as youth pastors and youth leaders praising all students who are making efforts to serve in the church (even if their efforts impact just one small aspect of the evening’s youth service)? Instead of offering only a few opportunities in the service for students to get involved, have we opened up the youth ministry so that any student can begin to utilize their spiritual gift(s)?

Don’t Bury Those Talents!
If we believe that God is a stern disciplinarian, then we may end up looking at God like how the third servant views his master. We become so unsure and/or afraid of what is given to us that we anxiously dodge the responsibility by burying it or giving it back to God (25:25). Yet what if we understand that what the master initially gives to us is actually a door through which additional blessings may be able to flow? Perhaps the Lord is giving us responsibility for the small things in life so that He knows when we will be prepared for the larger things. Just as how God does this for us, what are the small things we are giving to our students now so that they can increase their faith and preparedness? Empowering our students now and allowing them to utilize their spiritual gifts within the church can help our students become more like the first two servants by the time that they graduate and leave for college.

Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV): 14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’