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 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 few 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.’

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Easing Churchgoers Back Into Small Groups

“Where do we go from here?”...”Is this the new normal?”…”What should we do for our fall groups?” With less than two months away until fall groups launch, these questions are circulating on the small group ministry forums as churches begin to prepare for their seasonal small group push in September. Yet let us not forget the more subtle needs of churchgoers as we discuss reentry for our fall small groups.

Be Kind to Your Introverts
For some who are more introverted, the desire to socialize may not come back as quickly for them as for those who are more extroverted. It’s not that they are anti-social, it’s just that those who are located more towards the introverted side of the socialization scale will more likely find themselves staying in for the night instead of going out. To some degree, introverts have to be encouraged and guided back into the fold of small groups. For the extroverted small group ministry point person who is promoting small groups this fall, be gentle with your introverts. In other words, don’t be shocked if they say that they’re not ready to join a group just yet. While being away from fellowship for 6 months may not have been a big deal for them, it’s also possible that their socialization “muscles” may have atrophied a bit. After all, a person who hasn’t exercised in 6 months doesn’t jump off of the couch and run a marathon the next day. Similarly, some of our congregants will need to be eased back into the lifestyle of personally connecting with others.

Hybrid Groups Are Okay
Even as cases of Covid-19 decline, concerns will remain for the virus (especially among those who are considered high-risk). It is because of this that our upcoming small groups will need to be flexible. To help with this, one option may be to allow hybrid attendance where some members can attend the group remotely. While it may not be ideal, it accomplishes two things: first, it helps the aforementioned introverts begin to socially recalibrate; second, it provides fellowship for those who are at high risk. Jay Kranda, pastor of online groups at Saddleback Church, explains in a training video from November 2019 that online groups are a stepping stone for individuals to transition into in-person groups. Although his teaching may have been more prophetic than he realized, it is a nugget of wisdom that we must keep at the forefront of our minds as we begin the reentry process. Rather than insisting that all groups meet only in person, we must be okay with individuals wanting to connect remotely until they feel more comfortable. To further assist with this approach, perhaps offering a few online-only groups may help cater to this strategy.

Vision Casting for Those Who Aren’t Ready
Previously we discussed that when a church experiences trauma, healing will likely become a part of the church’s vision. Because of this reality, we refrain from holding onto the dangerous presumption that all church members will heal and reenter at the same time. To assist individuals within their journey back to small groups, taking a moment during one of your upcoming Sunday sermons can be an effective way to convey the elements of healing that congregants can find when attending a small group. To entice the highest number of individuals to join a group, sermon discussion groups may in fact be one of the best options to offer, as this provides a prepackaged small group experience where any individual can host and/or contribute, whether online, hybrid, or in-person. Healing and transformation happens within the context of relationships. Let us use this key fact to help fuel our strategy in reconnecting our congregants this fall.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Why Vision is Important for Youth Ministry

Two weeks ago we reflected on the fact that we have officially passed the halfway mark of the year and that it was a fitting time to revisit our church’s vision and mission for 2020. Such a topic is worthy of a deeper dive, especially within the context of Covid-19 and our youth and young adult ministries. Let us unpack this concept further on how you can reframe your church’s vision under your current context.

The Church’s Vision and the Weekly Sermon
James Kouzes and Barry Posner both masterfully unpack the process of vision casting in their book The Leadership Challenge, explaining that a vision “must appeal to all who have a stake in it. Only shared visions have the magnetic power to sustain commitment over time…It has to be a cause, something meaningful, and something that makes a difference in people’s lives.”  In other words, the vision must trigger an emotional response that allows churchgoers to become a part of something bigger than themselves. While there may be world or local events that require us to momentarily break away from the year’s vision, straying from the vision too often may extinguish the fire you had ignited within your congregants’ hearts, way back in January. The ebbs and flows of the culture’s tidal waves become the directional force behind the church’s preaching schedule. Instead of precise maneuvers that confidently advances the community toward a desired end goal, sermons can end up feeling like haphazard attempts to hit a moving target. Under this scenario, churchgoers find themselves relegated to the role of spectator instead of being fully immersed within the church’s vision. If your congregants aren’t feeling emotionally involved after the word of God is preached, then it may be possible that your church’s vision isn’t large enough to offer them a place where they can feel like they can contribute.

Vision Provides an Environment for Identity
For Millennials and Gen Z’ers, vision and mission are both essential. Since these two generations view their world through the collective experiences of their community, they have an innate desire to be a part of a vision that they can associate with. The mission is just as critical as well because it guides the group through the actions that are needed in order to fulfill the vision. Without mission, the group will live out their identity elsewhere. While our youth and young adults would not disagree that their identity is in Christ, their understanding of identity can be more tribal. Thus, being able to live out one’s identity in today’s world may require more opportunities for students to be a part of something larger (something that can be experienced with others).

Why Vision is Important for Youth Ministry
Older generations may be content with going to church to experience their faith among others and to help fulfill a few immediate needs in the community, but global-minded Millennials and Gen Z’ers are seeking opportunities to change their world and live out their faith through a collective experience alongside other likeminded individuals. Steve Gladen, pastor of small groups at Saddleback Church, says “People generally don’t give to needs; they give time and resources to a vision.”  For Millennials and Gen Z’ers, this is especially true. Should the church neglect this, our youth and young adults will be more likely to fade away from the body of Christ. This isn’t because they don’t believe in God, but because they naturally gravitate to opportunities or causes that help their faith become more tangible. If such opportunities are not available in the church, they may eventually find themselves expressing their faith in other locations, likely through works that are anchored elsewhere in the physical realm. In your next sermon, take extra care to mention to your churchgoers why they are all vital contributors toward the vision of your church.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Celebrating Our Freedom

The beginning of July marks a time of celebration for the United States of America. As we look back on our country’s history, it becomes easy to see that this is a special nation. Even today, there are areas of the world where one cannot protest, cannot voice their opinion, or cannot even go to a religious service without fearing for their life. We may be experiencing a tumultuous year, but this doesn’t mean that we forget to celebrate our freedom with our families, our churches, and our friends. Let us pause and reflect upon a prayer that David lays before God. Found in 2 Samuel 7:18-29, this excerpt of Scripture takes place immediately after David’s mistake of believing that he needed to build a temple for God in order to please Him.

18 Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: “Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? 19 And as if this were not enough in your sight, Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant—and this decree, Sovereign Lord, is for a mere human! 20 “What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, Sovereign Lord. 21 For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant.
22 “How great you are, Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. 23 And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? 24 You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, Lord, have become their God. 25 “And now, Lord God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, 26 so that your name will be great forever. Then people will say, ‘The Lord Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established in your sight.
27 “Lord Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. 28 Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your covenant is trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant. 29 Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Sovereign Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever.”

Let us freely worship our Lord and place Him first and foremost in our lives. While we must do our part to fight for freedom and to fight for justice, true resolution won’t be achieved in the physical realm, but upon the battlefield of spiritual warfare. In other words, the devil who lies and deceives continuously will not be vanquished until God is invited to the battle. Let us give praise that Christ has already declared His victory. Let us be thankful that our freedom is not dependent on the works that we do for Him. Indeed, just as how David points out in verse 21, the Lord has chosen to bless us first because He has always loved us first. Let us rest in this truth before we speak and engage with others. We truly are blessed tremendously to live in this nation. Let us not forget this, lest we spurn the one who gave us such an incredible blessing to begin with. Thank you Lord! God bless America.

Have a wonderful holiday weekend!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Revisiting Your Church's Vision for 2020

It’s surprising to think that we have arrived at the halfway mark of 2020; it feels like Covid-19 arrived on the scene just a short while ago. The entire world was impacted tremendously, and this year’s pandemic brought sudden changes to everyone’s lives. Not only were our daily routines quickly shaken up, but the plans and goals we all had on our minds during the month of January were suddenly overturned and left behind. With half of the year still to go, let us pause for a moment and reflect upon the 2020 vision that we had developed for our small group ministries such a short time ago.

Earlier this month, I found myself perusing Small Group Network’s pre-Covid resources, only to rediscover a Group Talk Podcast interview that discussed vision-casting with Steve Gladen (Click here for the link to this episode). Although I had listened to the interview when it was first published at the start of this year, the conversation now possessed a rather striking relevancy as I heard Steve’s words a second time through a Covid-19 lens. Here, let us explore a few key takeaways from the recorded conversation.

Vision and Goals are not the Same
Although the coronavirus may have derailed some of the plans that we had drafted at the start of the year, it is important to remember that a vision will operate more at the macro-level, while the church’s mission will operate more at the micro-level. Gladen explains within the interview that our goals are not the same as vision. Instead, goals act as “faith steps towards our vision” (emphasis mine). Should we miss our goals, it may be tempting to feel that we have failed our vision, but we must proceed with caution and not confuse the two. Gladen continues, explaining that in ministry, we will always encounter trauma, trouble and challenges along the way. To assist throughout the journey, our vision is like the North Star that helps in keeping us aligned with the plan that God had initially placed upon our hearts. Indeed, our vision is a calling or a movement that we are compelled to fulfill, where every decision made within the church contributes toward its success. A vision is an exciting, God-sized victory that we collectively aspire to achieve. In order for the members of our church to keep sight of it, we leaders are tasked to revisit the vision frequently. By doing this, we not only inspire our congregants to become more involved, but we also help to answer a question that each of them asks: “What is my role?”

Establish a Brain Trust
Have you invited godly people of differing opinions, strengths, and viewpoints into your leadership meetings? This Covid-19 season, we are all experiencing life in a way that is new to us. Even if we have been doing ministry for a decade or more, this year has likely caught us all off guard. As we continue to venture into unknown territory, it becomes important for us to be able to open our hearts and hear the needs and perspectives of various leaders within our communities. To get buy-in on implementing a vision, Gladen reminds us that we must do it relationally. He elaborates, explaining that “the stronger you are aligned in your vision, the stronger the people will take it on for you.” It is when we bounce ideas off of one another and have healthy dialogue that we are able to establish solidarity among the ranks and forge ahead.

A Season of Healing for Small Group Ministry
In the interview, Gladen notes that when a church has gone through a season of trauma, its vision moves toward the need for healing. With Covid-related deaths, mental health trials, loss of jobs, and also the events and protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, it can be easily argued that this year has in fact brought elements of trauma to the church community. With an entire world affected, church leaders can only do so much. In other words, the leadership team that is positioned at the helm of a church only possesses a finite amount of personal time, energy, resources, and giftings. In order for the church to be able to fulfill its God-sized ministry of healing, we are called to include as many church members as possible within the execution of its vision. It is here where a church’s small group ministry is essential and able to flourish. Whether you are launching online or in-person small groups this Fall, take special care to incorporate the elements of healing and fellowship into your church’s small group ministry vision. After such a tumultuous year, such an effort will certainly be welcomed and it can greatly assist in the re-entry strategy that your church will be implementing in the months that lie ahead.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

How to Launch Teens into Adulthood

Last month, Brett McKay’s “Art of Manliness” podcast published a fascinating interview that is an absolute must-listen for all youth ministry workers. While youth ministry wasn’t the focus of the interview, the conversation was exceptionally relevant and highly applicable to the struggles that our Millennials and Gen Z’ers are experiencing, including the difficulty for our youth to walk through the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Author of a book titled “Failure to Launch,” clinical psychologist Dr. Mark McConville PhD explains in his interview that there exists 3 tasks that an emerging adult has to master in order to successfully transition into adulthood. Let us unpack each of these and how they impact your youth ministry.

Most curious from Dr. McConville’s research is a prevalence for our youth to possess a “phobic avoidance of doing very simple administrative tasks.” Whether it be cleaning one’s room, keeping a job, or doing something as simple as scheduling a doctor’s appointment, our youth tend to display a militant resistance against the types of tasks that are common—and in some cases, even critical—for one’s ability to function within the coming years of adulthood. Dr. McConville shares insight from the field, explaining that his clients commonly express the fear they won’t be taken seriously within the areas of their lives that adults have historically managed on behalf of them. Perhaps this may hint at a point of view where Millennials and Gen Z’ers may feel that they were not comprehensively taught sufficient life skills by the previous generations. Another way to look at it may be likened to one’s ability to swim. Instead of taking instructor-led swimming classes that eases the person into the watersport, our students may feel like they are being metaphorically tossed into the deep end of life (whether they were ready or not). For the young adults who find themselves drowning in the real world and in need to be rescued, if becomes baffling and/or frustrating to be scolded by the older generations who accuse them for not trying hard enough.

Dr. McConville notes that once an individual turns 18, a sudden bombardment of available options and opportunities can cause an increase in anxiety within the emerging young adult. A reason for this may be that they think they have to do it on their own or that they feel they need to have a perfect plan in place before making a move on bigger life decisions. Should both of these concerns be present, it becomes a concoction that causes paralysis towards the pursuit of societal relevance. To help battle against this, Dr. McConville recommends that we share portions of our journey and the stumbling blocks we encountered along the way. By being vulnerable, we humanize the process of entering adulthood and help towards making the concept of “adulting” more accessible. Dr. McConville continues, explaining that launching into adulthood is not like traveling on a highway into their future, but instead like ascending a climbing-wall that has different ledges to grasp along the way. In other words, we as youth ministers can help our teens understand that much of life is working through the challenges and obstacles as we encounter them. Rather than precisely mapping our entire journey ahead of time, we simply just begin the journey and then proceed to shift our feet and hands from the vantage point of each moment that the climbing-wall of life provides to us.

Dr. McConville defines the process of becoming more relational as “developing relationships that in some way are instrumental to [their] own process of growing up.” He explains that by walking alongside the individual and working together to achieve a goal, mentorship helps our youth to not only find their way around the world, but also to help them build confidence in themselves. By walking alongside our students, we deshame the process of learning while also effectively dismantling any insecurities that our youth may have. Host Brett McKay notes in the interview that as the teen grows older, the relationship between them and their parents needs to become less vertical and more horizontal. Similarly, through sincerity and authenticity, a youth minister is one of the best individuals to help convey to a teen that they are needed by the community. Instead of just telling a teen what to do or how to live, a youth minister can become consultative in two movements: first, by offering students opportunities to conduct ministry; and second, by walking alongside their students and helping them to achieve the goal at hand. During the interview, Dr. McConville asks, “In a nutshell, how do we create a necessity that the youth will respond to, by adjusting [and] by creatively solving a problem? That’s the mystery of motivation…to create a system of necessity.” Youth ministry is one of the very best areas in a teen’s life where this is possible. To help your church in building such a system of necessity, order your copy of Youth Empowered today and learn more about how you can establish a student-led youth ministry that challenges and empowers your students to own their faith and confidently pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ.

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Monday, June 8, 2020

George Floyd Protests and Youth Ministry

The recent death of George Floyd has ignited a wave of protests surrounding law enforcement’s treatment of African Americans. The passionate outcry and quantity of protests we are witnessing is proof that our whole country is demanding that changes take place. Not only do racially motivated crimes go against the very fabric of what our nation’s laws have been built upon, they are an evil stain in our world that runs in complete opposition to the advancement of the kingdom of God. But how do we as a Church navigate this minefield of social discourse, and, more specifically, how do we engage our students within the context of our current affairs?

The Call for Christ-like Love
While our Christian principles compel us to raise awareness of social injustice and to protest for change, we nonetheless remain called to do these things through the lens of Christ’s unconditional love for one another. Yes, Black Lives (absolutely!) Matter. Yes, we must have equal treatment under the law. Yes, there are racial tensions that must be addressed and we must work together to stamp out the evil of racism that is still found within areas of our country. Yet it pains us all to watch a resolution to our societal anguish slipping further away as black entrepreneurs’ businesses continue to be destroyed, as grocery stores in black neighborhoods continue to be looted, and as black officers continue to have bricks thrown at them. In our passionate conquest to instill change as quickly as possible, we have saturated the campfire logs of somber discourse with numerous cans of lighter fluid before striking the match. Let us help the next generation keep sight of the biblical ideal of Christ-like love. As youth ministers, we can help our students understand that while we must protest to escape the shackles of evil, we must not protest with a degree of recklessness that inevitably leads our society back into the devil’s fiendishly deceptive grasp. Indeed, only the real and tangible love of Christ can successfully dissuade our youth from the allure of extremist tribalism.

Beginning with the Bible
The Bible clearly portrays the righteous indignation of the Lord when His people are either treated unjustly or when His people unjustly treat others. Although the first chapter of Isaiah was not written with Western civilization in mind, it is nevertheless striking to read this excerpt of Scripture through the lens of today. However, we must proceed with caution. While it is tempting to see only our adversaries within the events outlined in this text, the reality is that God did not call just one subset of Israelites to repent; He called an entire nation to repentance. When we all fall at the foot of God’s throne alongside one another as fellow sinners, we relinquish our urge to preside as judge over any other person. As a result, we submit and return the role of judge to the only individual who does have a perfect sense of judgment: Jesus Christ. By reminding ourselves that we too are sinners who do not deserve the grace of God, Paul’s exhortation becomes exceedingly relevant as we interact with one another: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3). Our youth are watching how we address others on social media and in the streets. Do our words of exhortation ooze with humility and Christ-like love? Or do our diatribes sound more like words of reproach that clang like an ear-piercing cymbal?

Our Youth Have a Voice
Amid the Covid-19 social distancing mandates, our youth are trying to make sense of a global-minded culture that is heavily burdened by political discord. Yet even in such an environment, our younger generations refuse to be defeatist or to idly stand by. One thing that these protests have shown us is that our youth have recognized that they have a voice and that they want to use it to help bring positive change to our world. As youth ministers, our role is not to suppress them, but instead to guide them and mentor them. It is for this reason that youth ministry is beginning to experience transformation within the church. Instead of merely being another classroom, it is evolving into a training ground for students to learn how they can use their faith to transform the world around them. Rather than merely telling them how to be a light that represents Jesus in their lives, we are now being called to minister alongside our students and empower them to positively impact their world. Embracing the race relations conversation with your students is a good start, but it is merely the beginning. Have you asked your students how the church can help them to effectively minister to their schools and communities in the area of race relations? You may be surprised at what they have in mind. The truth is that our students today are more in control than ever when it comes to determining what they receive and what they can contribute. A church that refuses to acknowledge the reality of this is a church that shamefully underestimates the spiritual horsepower that a youth ministry can possess.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Power of a Student’s Testimony

Earlier last month we started a series of articles focused on youth ministry through the lens of the recently published “Influencer Report,” a study from company Morning Consult that analyzes how Millennials and Gen Z use social media to gather information from well-known "influencer" personalities. Last week we discussed the ability of today’s youth to become micro-influencers within their digital world. This week, let us dive deeper into this topic, unpacking one of the ways that a youth ministry can build off of the students’ ability to be micro-influencers: their testimony.

The Power of Reviews
Buying a product online can be a serious commitment. Whether its clothes, tech gadgets, make-up, games, or even health and wellness items, we conduct hours of research to see if the product is for us. Yet, regardless of how good the seller promotes the specifications of the item, we’ve got to check out the product reviews. The product looks good, but does it work? Is it enjoyable? Has it made a difference in their life? If there are any challenges they have had with it, we would like to know about them. True, the number of 5 star reviews is certainly important to consider, but this metric alone isn’t always enough to make us pull out the wallet. Before taking the plunge, we do a quick scroll through the comment section to see how many of the “You need to buy this!” or “this truly changed my life” reviews have been posted. At some point along the comment feed, the reviews help us get off the fence and commit one way or the other (As an aside, if you’re looking for a good laugh, check out the product reviews for this banana slicer. You won’t be disappointed).

The Power of Testimony
Just like product reviews, a person’s testimony of their encounter with Christ can be extremely powerful. In fact, it always has been and always will be the most powerful style of evangelism the Church can put into practice. The reason for this is because a testimony is someone’s personal experience that is told from their perspective. The story is theirs and no one can take it away from them, regardless of how much the opposition may argue. It is here where secularism fails to refute the power of Jesus Christ, for there are too many testimonies of individuals shackled by sin who were suddenly transformed and born anew. Since today’s youth is engaging their world through the experiences of their peers, a testimony from a fellow student can be one of the most effective forms of ministry that your church can possibly utilize.

Youth Ministry and Testimonies
It is here where you as a youth minister can hand a microphone (or the church’s social media account) over to a student and allow them to be a micro-influencer through the power of their testimony. Naturally, such a suggestion brings with it the need to practice care and caution. Even though students can share some of the most powerful testimonies surrounding their spiritual struggles, we would not want to set students up for failure or create a scenario where information is shared that should not have been. The youth ministry leadership team and the parents should guide and mentor the student through the process of speaking on any topics that may be deemed as sensitive. Ideally, the student should be far enough away from the experience to objectively speak on the matter, but close enough to it to be able to be powerfully relevant to the other students within the youth ministry. Discernment is a must, and communicating this with the student and their parents can help ease concerns (while also allowing the Spirit to move at His own pace).

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Youth Ministry of Micro-Influencers

Earlier this month, we kicked off a new Focusing on Jesus series that will be discussing youth ministry through the lens of a recent study on youth and young adults called “The Influencer Report: Engaging Gen Z and Millennials.” Published by Morning Consult, the market research and data intelligence company surveyed over 2,000 13-38 year-olds and reported some fascinating observations from their findings. Be sure to bring along a friend or two by forwarding this to your youth ministers and/or youth pastor, as this will be a series of articles they won’t want to miss.

Last week we discussed “Authenticity is the Key Trait People Want,” which was one of the five key takeaways that the Influencer Report begins with. This week, we will explore another one of the five takeaways, namely “The potential micro-influencer market is massive.”

The Dawn of Micro-Influencers
In the first week of our series, we learned what an influencer was, but what is a micro-influencer? In a nutshell, a micro-influencer is an influencer with fewer followers. Whether the individual is striving to become an influencer or if they are an average social media user who is casually sharing something with their small network of friends, micro-influencers have a unique effectiveness in marketing that advertisements can scarcely compete with. It’s essentially the ancient practice of affiliate marketing, where friends tell friends about something cool they’ve found or a product they need to buy. We all have become trained to immediately scroll past an ad, however our attention is held when someone we follow shares a product or story we care about. Micro-influencers do just that, where they can reach the individuals who are usually unreachable under normal marketing conditions.

A Very Willing Youth
Two exciting observations taken from the Influencer Report show: (1) 54% of youth would become an influencer, given the opportunity; and (2) 86% are willing to post sponsored content for money. In other words, our youth are exceedingly willing to be micro-influencers and they want to share in the viral success of something (even more so if it benefits them). What this means for youth ministry is that it’s not that we need to convince our students to be active on social media for the benefit of the kingdom of God, they’re ready and willing. No, instead, it’s that we need to give them a reason and an opportunity to do so. They have the ability to reach those who are unreachable to the church. But do they have a reason to reach them or a community they can trust to help take care of their friends? If we as a church do not provide a framework for which our youth have enough freedom to become micro-influencers in the church, they will naturally become micro-influencers in other arenas.

A Shift in Ministry Mindset
How can we build such a framework? The short answer to this is that our students must be handed the reins of the youth ministry. Extending ownership to our youth will inspire excitement and pride in what they are building. As a result, students will naturally become micro-influencers. The days of a single leader effectively ruling at the helm of a ministry are fading away. While it may have been able to generate results in past decades, this leadership style is quickly losing its relevancy in today’s youth landscape. The church must explore a new approach. While sharing leadership may be recognized as the future of ministry, it is ironically a return to Christianity’s roots, where this was essentially how the faith thrived during its earliest centuries. To find out more information on how to make this shift occur, be sure to order a copy of Youth Empowered today for you and your youth ministers.

Let's Connect! Follow on Twitter: @SeanBuono

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Student’s Need for an Authentic Youth Minister

Last week, we kicked off a new Focusing on Jesus series that will be discussing youth ministry through the lens of a recent study on youth and young adults called “The Influencer Report: Engaging Gen Z and Millennials.” Published by Morning Consult, the market research and data intelligence company surveyed over 2,000 13-38 year-olds and reported some fascinating observations from their findings. Be sure to bring along a friend or two by forwarding this to your youth ministers and/or youth pastor, as this will be a series of articles they won’t want to miss.

Last week we discussed “Influencers are More Trusted as Spokespeople than Celebrities,” which was one of the five key takeaways that the Influencer Report begins with. This week, we will explore another one of the five takeaways, namely “Authenticity is the Key Trait People Want.”

Influencers are Authentic
In last week’s article, we discussed the difference between influencers and celebrities, and how your church can benefit when the youth ministry adopts social media strategies that are similar to what influencers also use. But what makes influencers so special and why do our students follow them? The Influencer Report states that “88% say it’s important for influencers to be authentic and genuinely care about their interests.” In other words, it is more than simply agreeing upon a shared interest. Indeed, the influencer engages with their viewers and builds a genuine relationship with them. When fashion vlogger Zoella asks her viewers to be her “second opinion” for trying on outfits during her latest “haul” video, or when popular gamer Ninja interacts with his “stream chat” in real-time, the viewers find themselves genuinely immersed in the experience as they become a contributor to the conversation between influencer and audience.

Relational Truth
Just as how we see influencers interacting with their audience in the secular realm, there can be similarities in how youth ministers can interact with their students. Students today are hungry for truth. But it is not simply truth from a factual standpoint that they are seeking; it is a truth that must be conveyed through relational means. This can be referred to as “relational truth” (not to be confused with “relative truth”). In a world with an abundance of experts and technology, youth are not lacking access to information. Instead, they lack the level of relational connectivity from which the truthful information is derived. Ministering to students today is more than simply conveying Christian information. Indeed, the youth pastor is called to engage with their students and build genuine relationships with them by inviting them into the experience of conducting ministry together. If there is anything the Church can learn from influencers of today’s social media, it’s that ministry is no longer operated from a one-directional approach. Immersion and involvement is the goal for our youth, and relational truth is the vehicle (More on this topic can be found in my book, Youth Empowered).

Authenticity Requires Vulnerability
Another observation taken from the Influencer Report is that an influencer’s authenticity is of more importance than their knowledge on the topic matter.  When working inside or outside of youth ministry, vulnerability is a powerful tool that can help embody authenticity and also empower others to become involved. While discernment remains key to knowing what to say and how to say it, our youth need to know that you’re on their side. They need to know that you will fight alongside them on the battlefield of spiritual warfare, rather than shout advice from the top of a hill a mile away. They need to know you’ve got their back, and that they can have your back, too, if you’re willing to let them into your heart.

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