Several months ago I asked my staff members to dream a God-sized dream. I asked them what they would like to do this year and said I wanted to get behind them to make their dream a reality. Peter Ladenheim came to me a few days later and said his dream was to run our own summer youth camp. Today was history in the making! Camp Dynamis Year 1, Day 1! I am so proud of him and excited for what God is going to do this week!
This morning our team left Shelter Rock Church and drove to The Legacy Center in Brooklyn where we helped prepare food, then we drove to Maria Hernandez Park where we served lunch to folks, some of them homeless, some working poor, and others were just passing by and accepted the gift of a free meal. We then unloaded the shuttle and got settled in at our host church, Living Waters Fellowship, which was just a couple of blocks from the park. After lunch and a brief chat we took the subway over to Manhattan and went to the New York City Rescue Mission, the oldest rescue mission in the country, and the second oldest in the world. It opened in 1872! We helped serve dinner to 308 guests. The team did an awesome job in each of their roles! After cleaning up we walked over to Little Italy and enjoyed dinner and some gelato. We then took the train back to Brooklyn. The team is now in orientation and taking some time to debrief the day together.
I am passionate about small groups. They are the backbone of the youth ministry that I lead. I am not personally leading one of our student small groups at the moment, but I do visit our groups each week and take time to observe and connect with our students and adult leaders. Here’s a principle that I shared with our leaders recently. I call it the “Look Who’s Talking” Principle.
I am a teacher by gifting. I love standing in front of a group of people and communicating. But when I am leading a small group, I have to remind myself that my role is different. The primary role of a small group leader is not talker, but facilitator. The reason I love small groups is that they give us a chance to help students learn in a more effective way than simply sitting in a chair and listening to an adult talk to them. Ouch! As a teacher, that hurts just a little bit. The truth is, students learn best, not by listening to us talk to them, but through experiences, and in the small group setting, through the experience of sharing what they are processing as it pertains to the topic.
A small group leader is not primarily a sage imparting wisdom, but a miner extracting wisdom from students through asking good, open-ended questions, listens carefully, and gets students involved in the conversation. Yes, adult leaders can share insights and experiences occasionally, but that should be an exception, not the rule. When leaders do all of the talking, students are relegated to the role of passive listeners rather than active participants. As leaders we must ensure that students are engaging in the conversation through sharing their thoughts with the group and listening to their peers. If you think in terms of the old Pareto (80/20) principle, as leaders you should be doing 20% of the talking, and students should be doing 80%.
If you are a small group leader, or if you have a few leaders in your group, take some time after small group to reflect and ask if students were engaging, or if you were doing too much talking. As a principle, remember the title of the 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking.” If there were a video recording, or even just an audio recording of your small group meeting, whose voices would you hear? Your goal should be to ensure you hear a whole lot of students’ voices (dare I say, all of your students?) and very little of yours. It’s tough, but it’s the best thing you can do for the spiritual growth of your students.
When I was in high school there was one class that I looked forward to more than any other: Gym. After lunch, it was my favorite time each day. But, if you’re one of those people (like I am) who won’t let students get away with answering, “What’s your favorite class in school?” with “Lunch” or “Gym,” then I have another answer for you. And I don’t have to think hard. My favorite class in high school was Mr. Moore’s Earth Science. Now, when I say that, please don’t jump to the conclusion that I know much about science. I don’t. What I loved about that class was that half of the time we got to go outside. We got to be in nature. And that was something I loved!
Out of that class I was chosen to be a part of a program called Down to Earth. For one week we got to leave school and go on various adventures. One day we did a low ropes course, another day we did a high ropes course, we went rappelling, and we even did free-fall rappelling off of a train track bridge. And the climax of our week was a hike into the woods, and an overnight camping trip. One of the things I learned through Down to Earth was the principle: Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.
A number of years ago I was in my first year of ministry at a church when we went on an international mission trip. During the trip I began to hear chatter about “Drama Wednesday.” During the front end of the week, they kept saying things like, “Drama Wednesday is coming,” “You know what happens on Wednesday,” “Save it for Drama Wednesday.” And then, when Wednesday came, sure enough, there was drama. When something negative would happen, or when students would get in an argument, or when students were acting clique-y, they would just say, “Yep. It’s Drama Wednesday.” Based on past experiences, they had resigned themselves to the fact that one day on a mission trip was going to be filled with conflict. It was like they had given themselves a Hall Pass to vent and argue and gossip and gripe on Wednesdays; to get it all out of their systems so the other days would be peaceful and unified.
This was one of those ministry culture things that I knew had to change. And, of course, the way of change itself brought on more drama. But a shift in thinking and attitude was needed. In his book Boundaries for Leaders, author Henry Cloud says, “Put some boundaries on the negative thinking, and you create an environment where negativity [can] no longer live” (p. 108).
Somewhere along the line, this group of students started living with the philosophy: Prepare for the worst, and then expect it as inevitable. My task was to help them shift their mentality to the Down to Earth philosophy I had been taught: Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. It wasn’t easy, but over the next couple of mission trips we raised the bar and eventually the culture changed significantly.
I submit that there is a big difference between planning for problems and having a plan to deal with problems. We understand that problems and challenges are inherent when humans are involved. But rather than expecting the worst as an inevitability, we believe for, pray for, work for, and expect the best. As a youth ministry, we have a philosophy of ministry that guides how we approach people and handle situations. When the best doesn’t happen, we aren’t necessarily surprised or caught off guard. We try not to freak out. Instead, we simply try to work our plan for dealing with drama and challenges as they arise in a biblically-based (Matthew 18:15-17), relationally healthy, God-honoring, restorative, redemptive way. It might seem like a subtle thing, but I believe this shift in thinking makes a big difference in the culture of our ministries.
- Talk about the statement: “There is a big difference between planning for problems and having a plan to deal with problems.”
- In what ways have you set the bar too low and simply expect problems? How can you raise the bar and change your ministry culture to expecting the best?
- What is your plan for dealing with problems in a “biblically-based (Matthew 18:15-17), relationally healthy, God-honoring, restorative, redemptive way”?
- What is your philosophy of ministry that guides how you interact with people and handle situations? If you don’t have one, set a time to get together with your team and create one.
Challenged by this quote from Mark Batterson in his book All In:
Pharisees treat people based on past performance. Prophets treat people based on future potential.
Pharisees give people something to live down too. Prophets give people something to live up to.
Pharisees write people off. Prophets right people in.
Pharisees see sin. Prophets see the image of God.
Pharisees give up on people. Prophets give them a second chance.
One of my favorite lines that I repeat often to leaders, parents, and even to students, is that my job, our job in youth ministry (and as parents!) is not to entertain students, but to equip them for life. Our vision statement for our youth ministry is to see students become fully-devoted, passionate, life-long followers of Jesus. In order for that to become a reality, they must be challenged in their thinking and in their practice. We have to stretch them to do hard things … uncomfortable things.
Growth only happens by doing things you’ve never done before.
Just the other day, my friend Thom Schults, founder of Group Publishing, said, “Too many people think if it’s uncomfortable it must be wrong. This is one of the biggest problems in the church today.” How true a statement!
Then, just this morning I was reading Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey in which he quotes Shane Claiborne who said, “I am convinced that if we lose kids to the culture of drugs and materialism, of violence and war, it’s because we don’t dare them, not because we don’t entertain them. It’s because we make the gospel too easy, not because we make it too difficult. Kids want to do something heroic with their lives, which is why they play video games and join the army. But what do they do with a church that teaches them to tiptoe through life so they can arrive safely at death?”
As I am writing this, my daughter is texting me about some of the challenging realities of our upcoming mission trip to Jamaica. Because we love students and want to help them see the world as God sees it and want them to have a bold, mature faith, we do not shy away from difficult situations. Of course, safety is very important, we aren’t talking about being stupid and rash. I want to be very clear about this. We do indeed take safety very seriously. That being said, the truth is, if safety was our only consideration, we would never go anywhere new or do anything we’ve never done before. We have to have something higher than safety, and that is a vision.
God’s vision is for the whole earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, and we are called to be a part of the advancement of His kingdom. We are called to be agents of light in a dark world. We are to take the light of Christ into dark places, and that inherently means we have to do hard things. So, we go with God’s vision, we go with God’s power (the Holy Spirit living inside of us who gives us wisdom and courage), and we go with God’s promises (not to be free exempt from trouble, but that He will be with us as we go through trouble). Therefore, we say yes to mission of Jesus, even when we don’t know exactly all that will happen, and we move forward with faith as our guide, not fear. Just some thoughts I have as I am spending time with Jesus this morning. I hope they are encouraging, challenging, and helpful.
Over the next few weeks my staff and I will be meeting with all of our volunteer adult youth leaders one-on-one. During our conversations, here are the 5 questions we are going to be sure to ask:
- How can I Pray for you? For your family?
- What do you need to Understand about the youth ministry or something coming up?
- Who is another potential Leader that we could invite to consider being on our adult leadership team?
- Tell me Stories of how you see God moving in the lives of students. How do you see God using you? Who are you connecting with?
- What can we do to Equip you to be a better leader for students?