Reflections on Youth Ministry and Dropping My Son Off at College

This blog post, by me, originally appeared on the Download Youth Ministry blog.

A few weeks ago my wife Heather and I drove away from the university campus we had just left our second son at, tears on both our faces, making the long drive home. Weren’t we just changing his diapers? Our football lineman was once so small.

I’m so thankful to be a youth pastor.

My wife and I jumped into full time ministry 21 years ago as newlyweds. We had our first of four sons three days before our first anniversary. The youth group called him “Cletus the Fetus.” Heather wasn’t as impressed as I was with their baby naming skills. Having my own children move through our student ministry has been an eye-opening and perspective changing experience for me. For a brief moment, all four of them were in our youth group at the same time – now we’re down to just two as the older two have graduated and moved on. Here a just a few reasons I love student ministry as a father and why I think it was so critical for my son we just left at a college too far away:

  • My son loves the church. I couldn’t say the same when I was a teen. In fact, it was right around his age that I swore off faith altogether. I was a pastor’s kid who hated what I had seen and experienced. My wife and I have always had as one of our barometers for health whether our kids like our church – not just the children’s ministry or the student ministry, but the church as a whole.
  • My son has a crew of loving Christian adults in his life. Mama Lin (Willie), Ed, and Figgy (Mike) spent the last seven years as his small group leader, showing up to events, visiting him at his job, and listening to all his stories. Those three men created an environment that built trust, loyalty, and incredible spiritual growth with a group of – what seemed at first to be challenging – Christian young men. There’s Kim, Carl, Melissa, and so many more who also serve in our student ministry. The best part? I got to choose them. I’m the youth pastor. Why do I put so much care into who is a part of our student ministry? How often do we get the opportunity to choose the adults who influence our children?
  • My son knows how to serve, to lead, to study scripture, to have accountability, to find other believers. He’s not perfect. I’m sure there are going to be moments in his college experience I would rather not know about. But I got to plan the seven years of his student ministry; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and staying in one place for all these years meant I got to see it through from beginning to end. I have seen my son lead worship, I’ve launched him off the blob, I’ve done street evangelism with him in Costa Rica, we’ve fed the homeless together on the border with Mexico, I’ve wrestled and beat him many times … and been beaten by him a few times in recent months.

Youth ministry is a gift. We get to be present during the most transformative time in peoples’ lives. Everything is bigger, everything is exploding, everything is new. And we get to be there. We get to see children go from concrete thinkers emulating their parents to teens processing and making their faith their own. My house is quieter than I would like now, but I feel good about where my son is at, literally and figuratively. I couldn’t imagine not having been his youth pastor!

2022 Student Missions Reports

Yesterday was our annual student missions report Sunday! This year we had 91 students and adults participate in our three trips. The highlight for Heather and I, though, was our three sons in the video above. Zach shared about his experience on the Niagara Falls trip (YouthWorks), Noah shared about his experience on the Blue […]

Skit Guys’ Family Camp movie review

The Skit Guys’ new movie, Family Camp, is a must see! Such a fun, family friendly film! The concept of the movie, a church family camp, is the perfect story for Tommy Woodard and Eddie James to shine. I’ll be honest, most faith-based movies rub me kind of wrong; they tend to be cheesy, predictable, or overly preachy. Family Camp manages to avoid those traps while still telling a story with a message, one I can’t wait to watch again.

I loved the humor. Great lines, hilarious physical comedy, a story that wasn’t predictable – it kept my family riveted to the screen. I loved that both actors had imperfect characters; at first glance I thought it was going to be black and white, one would be the example, the other the warning. Instead, they both had struggles and both had storylines teaching a powerful lesson about marriage – without being preachy or cheesy.

Our group took over an entire screening and it was a hit with everyone – every generation enjoyed the film. It’s definitely worth checking out. Seeing it on the big screen is the way to go! The Skit Guys’ succeeded in not just making a great faith-based film, they made a great movie.

Check out the free Family Camp movie discussion guide available at DYM!

Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youthworkers

Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youthworkers, by Mike McGarry, is another must read by McGarry. It truly is a handbook, a strong resource for both the professional youthworker and the members of the volunteer team. At only 192 pages, it is an easy read. McGarry divides the book into two sections; the first half walks the reader through 17 critical biblical truths. I love this section; if you’ve ever been caught off guard by a student with questions about why God allows suffering, who is God, what happens when someone commits suicide, and so on, this handbook provides a quick reference point to find answers.

The second half of the book tackles practical help for the youthworker; how to start a youth ministry, handling discipline, planning a calendar, talking about sex – there are 23 short chapters with topics like these. Super helpful for the new youth worker, but also a great refresher for the experienced leader as well.

Throughout the book the reader sees McGarry’s love for the integrity and importance of scripture. I love his admonition, “Patiently teaching good theology to students, however, makes a significant impact because it shapes their view of God. Don’t underestimate what teenagers (yes, even middle school boys) are able to comprehend.” Too many think the Bible needs to be dumbed down or simplified for young people – all this does is teach them to not take it seriously. Young people are hungry for depth, for truth.

Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youthworkers is an important resource. It’s a great tool for a leader to get for each of their team members, both as a reference guide as issues and needs come up, but also as a training tool to work through together. I highly recommend!

2021 Writing in Review

2021 is coming to a close … and it has gone by fast! I continue to have a lot of fun creating youth ministry resources. 2021 saw seven curriculum resources published and 29 game and/or media resources published, all through Download Youth Ministry. I also wrote an update to my chapter in the Youth Cartel’s book, Youth Ministry in This Season of Disruption. Heather and I wrote the Insta Devo resource together, as well as worked together on the Caption Challenge games. My youngest, Zach, was the brains behind both of the Dare Tag games. And I learned that if you make fun of Boomers (Boomer Say What), it will become your most popular game of the year. Click the images below to check them out!

Curriculum

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Games & Media

Christmas Movie Trivia title  The Naughty List title image  New Years Times Square Trivia title image  Can You See It - Take Me to the Movies  Deadly Animals title  DadOrGrad_blog    Dare Tag Messy Edition thumbnail    boomer2    Gen X'er Say What thumbnail  Gen X'er Say What Vol2 title image  Cowboy Say What thumbnail  Pirate Say What title image  Aussie Say What thumbnail        Caption_Challenge_Summer_Vacation_thumbnail  caption challenge mega bundle  Caption_Challenge_BTS_title  caption challenge trick or treat  Black Widow   Strange Holidays Summer Bundle  Strange Holidays June title  Scripture Video 4 Pack Vol3 title  3 pack

Christmas Party Game List

Over the last week, our student ministry has done both of our middle school and high school Christmas parties! For us, that means time to hang out, Christmas cookies, and a lot of group games! We decorate our gym with a lot of Christmas colored lights, Christmas music, and Christmas inflatables (giant Santas – stuff you would put in your front yard – it’s easy to set up and tear down!). It’s a night all about fun! Two things we added this year that we haven’t done in previous years:

  • We bought a Christmas photo backdrop! This was GREAT. Everyone wanted to get photos in front of it! I brought a nice camera, which meant everyone was good with me taking the photos! Here’s the backdrop we got.
  • We called it an Ugly Sweater Christmas Party … and SO MANY kids wore festive outfits. It was amazing!

Overall, the games were a hit and we had a blast. Here’s what we played, which group played it (they all would work both groups … I have fun changing it up), and the links to find them:

  • Santa’s Naughty List; Middle and High School. This one just released! It’s a ‘Wheel of Destiny’ game on Sidekick that comes up with punishments (Christmas themed dares) for kids who end up on Santa’s Naughty List!
  • Santa’s Feud; Middle and High School. Using the ‘Survey Says’ app in Sidekick, I put together a ‘Family Feud’ style Christmas game. This has become a tradition at our Christmas party – kids LOVE it! There are a couple great ones already on the DYM store.
  • Exchange It! Middle and High School. A new twist on the classic White Elephant game! Using the wheel of destiny, kids are rotated all around the room until you decide to let them open the presents! I modified the different cues to line up with my group more, but this game is a winner.
  • Christmas Movie Trivia; Middle School. A fun Christmas movie trivia game I made this year.
  • First to Ten Christmas Edition; Middle School. These games are always a winner – I love that it’s one that involves the whole room.
  • Elf on the Shelf 3; Middle School. Perfect for that crowd.
  • Would You Rather Holly Jolly Edition; Middle School. This was a fun way to get everyone moving and talking.
  • Christmas Movie Madness; High School. I love this game! I played it with the whole room; kids threw their hands up if they knew the answer, I called the first one I saw, and if they were right they got candy.
  • Jingle Battles volume 2; High School. Stupid fun, which is my kind of fun. I had everyone stand up, move to the side of the room they thought would win, and then sit down if they were wrong. It took about five rounds to get to one winner!

My Christmas Resources!

I have a handful of Christmas resources that I have created – and a couple that Heather created with me – that may be useful during this time of year! The images below are all links to where they are located on the Download Youth Ministry store. Check them out!

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God With the Fearful is a one-off Christmas message based on Matthew 1:18-25 focusing on God’s promises to Joseph to save him and be with him in his fear. It includes a message manuscript, handouts, discussion questions, PowerPoint file, and images for social media.

  Christmas Movie Trivia title  

Hashtag Sleigh Ride, Christmas Movie Trivia, and Caption Challenge Christmas Edition are all games that can be played in person or online. Hashtag Sleigh Ride and Caption Challenge Christmas Edition both include versions for Instagram as well! Heather and I co-authored Hashtag Sleigh Ride and Caption Challenge Christmas Edition.

 

Strange Holidays is a fun collection of seasonal social media images and challenges that can be used, one per week, for the months of December, January, and February! The Christmas Scripture Video five pack has five typography videos with Christmas related scripture passages – at $6 for all five videos, it’s an incredible deal! They are all licensed to be used in person and online, so they can be used as worship elements, or even just social media videos in the buildup to Christmas. See the video below to see what they are:

Why All-Nighters?

All-Nighters take me out for days. Sore muscles, foggy brain, exhausted body. Is it worth it?

I remember years ago reading a survey of thousands of teens from youth groups around the country; when it came to popular fun events, all-nighters were ahead of the competition by a landslide. Based on my experience, the results would be the same today if they did that survey again. And it makes sense; think back to when you were thirteen, fifteen years old – being able to say you stayed up all night was exciting, it was cool, it was something to brag to your friends about. It was a sort of test of endurance.

Why is it worth it? These events are over the top and exciting for adolescents. They’re cool, and the critical ministries we want kids in week after week become cool by association. Teens may not think of it in terms like that, but the over the top events like retreats and all-nighters do create a reputation of being the place to be – I want teens bragging to their friends about the events we do, I want them posting on their social media about it. All-nighters are an investment, both financially and physically, in our Wednesday night small groups and Sunday morning large group ties.

Here’s the thing, we do that same kind of attractional event for adults, don’t we? Concerts, picnics, holiday parties – we may use language like fellowship to explain their value, but at the core it’s the same, isn’t it? Our church becomes exciting to our adult crowd in part because of these concerts, picnics and parties. They may not be spelled out in the Bible, but we see the Biblical value in doing them. The same is true of all-nighters.

They’re not just about fun, there is real, ongoing value to doing them. They are a powerful investment in the critical ministry that happens in our small groups and Sunday mornings.

Twenty Years

Twenty years. It goes by fast.

In March, 2001, I became a full time youth pastor.

Heather and I had been married for a handful of months and had just found out we were expecting our first child. He would end up being two days old at our first anniversary – definitively NOT part of our five year plan, but we like him so it turn out okay. My youth group at the time thought they had input in naming him and seemed to think “Cletus the Fetus” was a legitimate option. We politely declined. You’re welcome, Micah. Now he’s in college and some of those teens have kids closing in on youth group age. It goes by fast.

We have four sons total. There was a brief window last summer where they were all in the youth group at the same time; our youngest moved up to sixth grade, our oldest hadn’t left for college yet. Having my own kids in the group is amazing. I like to joke with other youth pastors that it’s like having my own brutally honest focus group.

I feel like I should be listing all of the things I’ve learned over the years. Honestly, though, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. I’m still learning, I’m still figuring it out, I’m still wrapping my mind around what youth ministry is.

As a parent of teens now, I have to confess that young youth pastor me would have driven current me crazy. Lousy communication, last minute notice about events, a little too confident at times. I had a lot to learn.

But there’s also an incredible nostalgia that comes with watching the old videos from those days and looking at the photos. It was such an exciting, new time.

Probably the biggest difference now is perspective. Youth ministry is a long game. I think I used to believe too much rode on each meeting, I took it too personally when kids were kids and broke the rules, I thought too much hinged on me. It’s really about being a stable, consistent presence, gently pointing young people to God, showing grace, not panicking over things that may seem huge in the moment but in reality fade away quickly. I love that I still love doing it.

Youth ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.

But it does go by fast.

Book Review Roundup

Some short takes on four books I’ve read over the last couple months:

God and the Pandemic, N.T. Wright. I really wish I had read this when it first came out! Wright does such an effective job of both navigating scripture and addressing the real pain of the pandemic. He challenges the reader to respond like Christ, while cautioning that sadly, for too many “the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway.” (p.7) He challenges readers to be humble, to have perspective, and live out God’s calling to love our neighbors even if it means sacrificing our preferences. He askes the questions, “Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? and who shall we send?” (p.32) I really appreciated the heart in this short book; definitely worth checking out!

Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. Perry’s book was not what I expected; it was much more than a discussion about her transition from being a lesbian to marriage to her husband. It is the story of her life, the abuse she endured, how she navigated sexuality, the story of her coming to know Christ, and eventually the story of the relationship with her husband. She writes that “being born human meant that I had the capacity for affection and logic. Being born sinful meant both were inherently broken.” (p.21) I thought how she told the story of addressing her brokenness was beautiful. My one frustration was that for much of the book it came across as though becoming a Christian meant a natural transition from gay to straight. It wasn’t until the end of the book that Perry acknowledged that while that was her experience, it certainly isn’t true of everyone. Rather than being a book about sexuality, Gay Girl, Good God, is the story of Perry’s faith journey, and as such it is moving to read. I highly recommend.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, Preston Sprinkle. I’ve enjoyed Sprinkle’s writing over the years (Erasing Hell is one that stands out), but I was frustrated with this one. Sprinkle’s strength is in humanizing the stories of transgender people, but by his own admission, his weakness is that he is neither a doctor or a psychologist. Too often I felt he was either picking the research he agreed with and ignoring the ones he doesn’t, or attempting to interpret complex medical research that is above his pay grade. Having said that, I was surprised on his stance on pronouns and names (given the preceding chapters and his conclusions in general about transgender issues). I appreciate the argument he makes from scripture on why using someone’s chosen pronouns is both respectful to the person and in line with scripture. Overall, though, if someone is going to read just one book on this topic, then I would recommend Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria. As a theologian and a practicing psychologist, Yarhouse does an incredible job of balancing both scripture, science, and his decades of direct experience working with people.

Engaging Generation Z: Raising the Bar for Youth Ministry, Tim McKnight. I found myself highlighting a lot of passages in McKnight’s book. It’s a great resource for learning more about Gen Z, how they think, and ways to reach them. I appreciated his comments on page 83 that teens want to be challenged with spiritual meat; that we don’t need to be dumbing down the material for them. He addresses an issue that I think is particularly relevant for churches to confront; he points out that Gen Z is the most “racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history.” (p.36) As such, they are that much more aware of how the church responds to race issues – and it has become a major stumbling block for them. I know I’ve seen this directly with the teens in our church and their frustration on how they’ve seen many adults in our congregation interact around this topic and other topics over the last year on social media. McKnight gives a lot of great insight on healthy approaches to student ministry, practical tips, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are in student ministry.