Archive for the ‘community’ Category

I don’t think it’s any mistake that I have been reading (and watching) the “Hobbit” while we as a church have been launching our 3rd campus. It’s hard not to see all the similarities. There have been times of uncertainty; times of anticipation; times of blind faith; times of re-mapping our course. There have been unlikely heroes and a few occasional dragons along the way. But we finally made it this past weekend!

For those of you who are unaware, our church, Southland Christian Church, bought a run-down mall property in Lexington, KY, about 20-25 minutes from the main campus (although we try not to say “main” campus, as that encourages a ranking system of every site when each one is very much equal). Over the course of a couple years, it has been renovated into a great building with lots of room for people. Over the course of the opening weekend, around 4,700 people attended a service at the new campus. We were blown away! The best part about it was meeting people who don’t have a church home and were just coming to check it out because it looked interesting. We want to multiply the kingdom, not add and subtract from other churches.

RR Launch-WorshipWe also launched LIFT, the middle school ministry of Southland, at the new campus during the opening weekend. We have yet to hire a Student Director for that campus, so for the time-being I have been overseeing the middle school ministry at two campuses. (Our third campus in Danville has been going strong in middle school ministry under Scott Hatfield’s leadership!). It has been a tall task to try to prepare for a large ministry launch while also building another one, but I loved the challenge. We have a great student ministry team that has poured so much time and energy into the student ministry room and the programming.

When we opened the doors on Sunday, we had more than double the amount of middle schoolers than we anticipated. We actually ran out of chairs! We were throwing couches and random seats in the back row to fit more students. It was a great problem to have. When thinking about middle schoolers and the launch of a new ministry, here are a few things I have reflected on this past week:

  1. If the adults are excited about it, the middle schoolers will be excited about it. With so much energy coming from the stage in the main service, along with our incredible volunteer launch team talking about it everywhere, students expected to be blown away when they came to LIFT at the Richmond Road new campus. They were excited before ever setting foot in the programming because we had earned their trust and excitement in other arenas. Don’t neglect or ignore the power of your staff’s and volunteers’ excitement with middle schoolers.
  2. Sneak-Peeks are gold. The week before the launch we had an open-house at the new campus for anyone to walk through and get a tour of the facilities. When they came to the student ministry room, we had music blasting, games were being played, volunteers were welcoming, and so forth. Additionally, we made an Instagram account (@LIFTRR) and put up some “sneak-peek” pictures that got students really excited.
  3. Activities and games in the room are a must-have. For a middle school guy to walk into a room and feel comfortable, he needs to have an activity to join. At that age guys are not comfortable walking into a room where there are only couches and RR Launchchairs. That’s incredibly intimidating. Encourage conversation with leaders by centering it around activities. In the new student ministry space we have foosball, an arcade basketball game, air-hockey, 4-square, and 9-Square-in-the-Air (which is by far the biggest student favorite!). Eventually we’ll have carpet ball and gaga ball as well.

I’m sure we have a lot to learn still, but these are a few lessons I will take with me for future new ministry launches. There are a lot of questions to be answered, but with the right volunteers and high energy, you can create an environment that’s attractive so middle schoolers can come and encounter Jesus in worship. Remember, the room isn’t the end; it’s only the means to an end.

(If you’re interested in how our children’s ministry is handling the launch of the new campus, check out Jason Byerly’s blog at http://www.simplekidmin.com/2013/01/diary-of-new-campus-first-look-at.html)

What would you add to that list? What are some must-haves for middle school students?

Coming into my position as the Middle School Pastor, one of the things I knew I needed to do – for my own passion and sanity – was lead my own small group of guys. I love the large group teaching environment, casting vision, and developing programming. But where I really come alive, and where I really feel that I am discipling best, is within a small group of guys. It keeps me in tune with where our students are at and gives me the opportunity to pursue relational ministry (which isn’t easy with a MS youth group of 300).

And after leading middle school small groups for so long, I’ve learned that I’m still learning. So my idea was to create a weekly blog series where I re-cap my most recent small group with the 6th grade guys and talk through the creative and leadership lessons that I learned and that some of my readers might use. I was talking with one of our other 6th grade guy small group leaders who was so excited to be leading but also expressed how much he needed to learn. He was asking the other leaders for ideas on how to lead a 6th grade guys group. My hope is that this blog series will highlight my successes AND failures (there will be many of the latter, I’m sure) in order to give an idea or two to any middle school small group leader.

Each week I will have a few elements to each group re-cap:

  • Content: What was the big idea? What did we hope the guys would take-away from the group?
  • Creativity: What did we creatively do to get the guys talking? And more importantly, did it work?
  • Cool Moments: Were there any cool moments where God really moved? Often times we don’t stop long enough to celebrate the little moments where the Holy Spirit is present in our small groups.
  • Changes Needed: What do we need to change in the group dynamic to improve the experience in the future?

To help you understand our specific group, I am co-leading with a volunteer (Austin) who is a college sophomore at Asbury. As of right now, we have 9 sixth-grade boys. Four of them go to a Christian private school, and five go to public schools. It’s a good mix. For this first post, I am going to re-cap our first two weeks, since we’ve had two small groups already. (**As a side note, we call our small groups “Life Groups,” but for the sake of universal understanding, I will be calling them small groups in this series.)

Also, to protect the guys’ privacy, I won’t use real names when describing our discussions.

Week 1 and Week 2

Content: In the first two weeks we had two main goals – get to know the guys, and set the tone for what small group is all about. In week 1, we came up with expectations as a group (I included the picture to the right for you to enjoy!). In week 2, we talked about what it meant to be a community of guys. We focused on 1 Thessalonians 2:8 and the idea of “sharing our lives” with one another. I also gave the guys an opportunity to talk about what they wanted to learn about the most, as our small group leaders have a large set of curriculum (the Uncommon Junior High Group studies by Kara Powell) they can choose from with many different topics. The most popular were the Armor of God, Parents & Family, and Emotions & Dating. The last one was a little bit of a shocker for me with 6th grade guys!

Creativity: In week 1, I stole an idea I got from Rick Lawrence over at Group Publishing (thanks Rick!). I got a wide variety of objects like a rubber band, a crushed soda can, an empty cup, a domino, etc., and asked the guys to choose an object that best symbolized their experience in middle school so far. This gave the guys an opportunity to connect their abstract emotions with a concrete object they knew and understood (See my previous blog here for more on the middle school brain). The answers were amazing! Then I asked a second question: Choose an object that best describes your relationship with your family. Again, more incredible answers. And finally, I asked them to choose an object that best describes their relationship with God right now. One guy chose a crushed Coke can and said that his relationship used to be strong like a normal can but has recently felt weak and crushed like the one in his hand. WOW.

Cool Moments: The coolest moment for me was when the guy was sharing about his relationship with God with the crushed can. As he finished up sharing he began to tear up (Keep in mind this was our first ever meeting). Another guy in the group got up in that moment and went to him and put his arm around him in support. That was one of those moments in middle school ministry that I’ll never forget. Other guys also shared about some deep struggles they’re having with the pressure of school and family expectations. I love the trust factor we already have developed in the group.

Changes Needed: In week 2 my co-leader was absent due to some circumstances out of his control, and the guys came with a LOT of energy. At times it was very hard to get them serious about what we were doing. I’m sure it would have been easier with my co-leader, but even a middle school pastor can struggle with keeping order in the room sometimes! I think I need to take note of the success of the “objects” icebreaker I described above and develop other ways of having discussion around physical objects as opposed to just talking. I’m already thinking about how I can use play-doh and Legos (one of the guys came to small group WITH a pack of Legos – love this age group!) to have meaningful conversation. If you’ve done something like this before, by all means, pass on your creative ideas!

So that’s it! Whether you’re a parent or a small group leader or a pastor, let’s collaborate and swap ideas. We are better together than we are alone!

For those of you who missed my most recent blog post, I reflected on what it felt like to be in transition. My wife and I have been in full-fledged transition for what feels like the past 12 months. In fact, when I look back at our lives one year ago today, it almost makes me chuckle at how different our lives are now. New state, new job for me, new job for her, new friends (though we haven’t let go of the “old” friends, so don’t worry), new lives together. While it is all very exciting, transition is never the easiest thing to process.

And, as I mentioned in the last blog, this has everything to do with the lives of middle schoolers too. Everything about their stage of life is transition. Transition to high-pitched voice to bass-toned voice. Transition from 4’0″ tall to 6’0″ tall. Transition from kid to teenager (or adult). “Changes” is the name of the game.

As we experienced our own transition, I tried to take note of the things that people did that made the transition easier or even more fun. With the hopes of understanding some new ways that I can help middle schoolers in the same way, I tried to record my own emotions and responses (as well as my wife’s) to the people who went out of their way to minister to us in this transition. Here are a few quick things that made our experience better:

  1. Invitation. Whether it was the people back in Colorado who invited us to a special dinner to celebrate with us before we left, or the people here in Lexington who invited us to simple things like watching NCAA basketball with them on the day we arrived, the invitations always made us feel incredibly loved. At some points we almost had more invitations than we could handle, and that’s a good problem. It’s hard going to a new place and wanting to get to know the culture and people without being too presumptuous. When people extended invitations to me and Nicole, the transition felt like normal life to us. And wasn’t Jesus a master of invitation too? He knew the effect it had on people. An invitation is a beautiful request to share lives. When was the last time you invited a middle schooler to share some aspect of your life?
  2. Intentionality. I have to admit that I’ve been a little jealous of my wife since we’ve been here. So many women have been intentional with asking her out to coffee, grabbing a bite to eat, or even joining a Bible study. I don’t know if there’s a special personality trait that all of these women share, but it’s as if they knew coming to a new state would be difficult for us. Nicole would leave for hours at a time, sharing lunch or coffee with lots of different women who had been intentional with her. Are we that intentional when middle schoolers are going through transition? Perhaps a better word here would be empathy. Do we empathize with middle schoolers as they go through so much change?
  3. Grace. If you got a hold of a transcript of my conversations over the past few months, I’m almost positive one of the most-repeated words of mine would be “sorry.” I find myself apologizing a lot for not knowing little things like how the copier works, or who to talk to about ministry event details, or other things of that nature. Thankfully I work with an awesome group of people who have shown so much grace to me, knowing that it would be a steep learning curve. (I am especially thankful of our administrative assistant Mallory, because I honestly don’t know if I could have survived without her constant grace and help.) Obviously grace is sort of a big thing for Jesus. Jesus was and is the master of grace. In light of this, do we show enough grace to middle schoolers who are in transition? When they start acting up during worship, do we just get upset and discipline? Or do we stop to think about where they’re coming from? This is a big one that I’m still learning, and one that probably needs its own blog post.

I am trying to learn not just from the example of people who made this transition a better experience for me and my wife, but also from the one, Jesus, who really exemplified these traits.

How might your own middle school ministry change if you started being more invitational, intentional, and gracious? If you are a parent, how might your relationship with your child be affected if you employed more invitations, intentionality, and grace in your family?

The Power of Hello

Posted: November 21, 2011 in community, hospitality

“Hey! I’m David. How’s it going?”

I’m starting to wonder how many times I’ve repeated that phrase or something similar to it in youth ministry settings. I think it’s a pretty natural thing to say. It doesn’t take a youth ministry veteran to think of that one. But I’m starting to think that God has divinely blessed that exact phrase because of the impact it’s had on so many kids I know.

Okay maybe that’s over-stating it a little (though I’d like to see you prove me wrong!). But recently I have truly been amazed when I look around our middle school room and see some faces consistently every week that I never thought would become some of our core kids. These particular kids were those kids who came to our church every single week and even hung out with each other, but never stepped foot in our middle school theater. (Yes, our church is in an old movie theater. And yes, it is awesome to have a whole theater for middle school stuff.). I really have a heart for these kids.

On one hand, I can say that I don’t blame them. It can be really intimidating walking into our crazy room with the music blasting and kids running around playing ping pong and foosball or hanging out on the couches. It’d be easy to turn the other way into the safe anonymity of the “adult scene.” I get that. But I refuse to accept it.

Every time I see a middle schooler outside of our room, I make it a priority to say “hello” to them even if it’s just for a second. I don’t pressure them to come to youth group. I don’t guilt them for not joining one of our Life Groups. I just say hello. And I’m starting to think this should become our new outreach program!

I’m thinking of two students (a guy and a girl) in particular who have become regulars in our youth group when they used to avoid eye contact as they walked past the middle school room. When I first met the guy, he was very shy and seemed really uninterested in socializing. I think our conversation lasted a solid 30 seconds before it slid to an awkward, painful halt. In my early years in ministry that would have frustrated me beyond anything. But I have learned that those short, awkward conversations are all seeds in God’s plan for these students. Every week I’d find the area he’d hang out in and commence our normal, short conversation before the first service. Each week I’d learn one new interesting fact about his outdoor interests, his love for reading, and so forth. Finally after months of minute “hellos”, he stepped foot in our youth group. Not long after that, he started serving as a student leader. Now he’s connected to other students and has become one of the most dependable students we have – one that doesn’t just show up for fun, but truly wants to grow.

When I first met the other student, a girl, she had that deer-in-the-headlights look when I said hello. I’m pretty sure “hello” was the only word I could get out before she would turn to find a friend or something to do. But I refused to stop saying hi. Every week I’d make it a point to say hello even if I felt like she didn’t care either way. Then some of our female leaders took the extra step to get to know this student in non-church settings. All of a sudden this girl showed up to youth group! And she didn’t just hide either; she really engaged with other students. Now she has become one of our regulars who is also involved in our Life Groups. She even talks to me now! Haha!

These may be simple stories that don’t really impress many of you. And that’s ok. My intention is not to impress, but rather, to un-impress you with the simplicity of ministry. Sometimes we create programs and events so elaborate, there is no way they can be repeated or sustained. And in our busy-ness of planning, we neglect the informal “Greeting Ministry” AKA saying hello to students! I have such a strong conviction about this that I do my best to say hello to every student that walks through our doors on a Sunday. This can be very difficult with the large number of kids that have been coming to our ministry. But as a pastor, I am simply not okay with a student coming to church and not being greeted by at least one person.

We have to remember that one of the biggest roadblocks to evangelism and discipleship in our ministries is the front door. If you really think of it, the front door is usually the biggest hump that students have to climb in order to feel like church or youth group is a place that they want to be at. The first impression of a youth group can often be a lasting one.

This is a lesson I re-learn every week. We are not perfect. I get new inspiration to make our ministry more welcoming every Sunday. But I try to remember above all the simplicity of saying “hello”. I have a strong conviction that saying hello can be the first seed in a student’s life to help them encounter the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

How hospitable is your ministry? How hospitable are you? If you were a teenager in your church would you feel welcomed by the staff, volunteers, and students in your youth group?

Community Isn’t Just a Buzz-word

Posted: August 31, 2010 in community

My alma mater Taylor University is infamous for tossing around the word “community” as if the existence of the school itself depended on it. Mention that word in the student union and you’ll either get a couple of rolling eyes or an over-eager student senate member advertising the next big event that somehow will enhance the Taylor community more than last week’s event. In the well-intentioned but often misguided use of this word, many people are left with unsatisfying answers to some of the hardest questions about what deep fellowship is really about.

This past weekend at Vanguard Church our senior pastor Kelly Williams addressed the topic of aloneness and finding real relationship with others as we seek out real relationship with Jesus Christ. He pin-pointed an extremely important topic that is affecting every church and ministry, big and small. The fact of the matter is that people – especially middle school students – are lonely because they lack real community and relationships that go deeper than the surface level.

In his book called Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships, Dr. Larry Crabb says,

I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness, a failure to connect that keeps us from receiving life and prevents the life in us from spilling over onto others (32).

This togetherness, this deep community and fellowship, does not come easily. It requires sacrifice – something which our Facebook society does not encourage. Think about it. On Facebook it’s very easy to give only a tainted picture of who you really are to your “friends” and then run from anything that resembles pain or suffering. We don’t get on Facebook to enter into deep, life-pouring relationships. We use it to consume shallow relationships.

So what does this have to do with middle school ministry and relating to our kids? Everything. I’m not that old, but I didn’t have Facebook or any kind of social network until I was in college. I actually had to learn through my teenage years how to relate to others and build relationships. Our middle school kids, on the other hand, have grown up with this kind of social interaction. Most of their relationship knowledge and what they’ve learned about “community” has come from a website.

I can’t just point the finger at Facebook, though. I think youth ministries have accidentally (at times) encouraged shallow relationships with what it calls “fellowship” times. I was challenged once by a book on youth ministry that said we should never assume that what we call in youth ministry “community-building” is the same kind of fellowship and community that the early church experienced. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have times of fun and games, but community, in the biblical sense, is so much deeper.

So what is community? And are we asking too much to have biblical community with our middle school kids?

Picture this. Setting: all-guys middle school small group, 9:00 AM on Sunday morning in Indiana. The kids’ eyes are barely opened, as most of them stayed up really late the night before. But all of a sudden, one student (I’ll save the names to protect these students) shares about his desire to change from his old life when he wasn’t a Christian, and how he broke into tears explaining this fact to his non-Christian mom who wouldn’t let him go to youth group. His heart-level honesty encourages the next guy to share to about his relationship with his mom, and how he felt that he could never do enough to earn her love. With tears in his eyes, he tells the group, “I just don’t know what else I can do.” At that moment, two of the other guys put their arms around him and ask if they can pray for him. Immediately after I said that we could pray, every guy in the small group, including guys who never prayed in front of people before, prayed for our friends who shared.  At this point, there’s hardly a dry eye in the group.

Or how about a month ago when a group of middle school guys in our youth group got together with their leader and shared some of their deepest struggles in hopes of finding accountability and support with each other? With gut-level honesty these guys cried out for help as they relayed stories of struggling with lust, self-esteem, past mistakes. For over an hour these guys prayed with their leader for each other and for the Lord’s strength.

Or what about 2 months ago when, after I finished a talk at a camp I was guest speaking at, the middle school kids refused to leave the service because they wanted to worship together and pray for each other? With the tune of Amazing Grace playing from the front, huddles of students were seen all over the room as kids re-dedicated their lives to Christ… together. Not alone.

That is community. That is deep fellowship. That is what the early church experienced in Acts 2 as thousands were added to their number daily.

Now, I don’t want to mis-represent the picture of middle school ministry week after week. It doesn’t always look like that. But I DO think it is possible more than we imagine. This is the reason our middle school ministry on Sunday mornings has shifted to a focus on small groups. By doing so, we create space for the Holy Spirit to work within our friendships and relationships to deepen our sense of community and God’s presence. We have to create space for deep fellowship and community that goes beyond pizza and ultimate frisbee. While there is nothing wrong with pizza and ultimate frisbee, we have to remember that it can’t stop there. Jesus entered our lives as a human being for more than a free lunch. He came to enter into our lives and our suffering in real relationship.

As a final note, I’d like to thank the people in my life who have taught me through joys and trials what community really means. Especially within this past year – Joel, Dan, Grant – thank you for showing me what it means to love deeply and live sacrificially.

How are you seeking out true community and deep fellowship in your life? How are you creating space for the teenagers in your influence to experience real community and relationships with peers and adults?