risky behavior by middle schoolersI once had a middle schooler in my small group, whom I will call Brad (not his real name). Brad would come to small group every week with a new story that shocked me. Now normally I tend to question the validity of the shocking stories that are told me weekly by some students, as most of them are designed to just get a reaction from me, but this student was different. Not only did he have a shocking story, but he had the wounds and scars to back it up. No, he wasn’t getting abused by anyone (unless you count himself as “anyone”). He was into BMX biking. He would take his bike everywhere and go off anything that could be a ramp or grind on anything that could be a pole. Everything was an opportunity for adventure to him… And most of those adventures resulted in bleeding legs, bruised faces, and scabbed arms. He was very proud of his “war-wounds,” but one week I just had to ask him, “Why do you keep doing those things if you always end up hurting yourself?!” He simply replied: “Life would be boring if I didn’t bike.”

I don’t know if you’re a parent or a youth worker, but regardless, I bet you have witnessed a lot of risk-taking behavior in your middle school students. It may be physical risk or emotional risk (e.g. middle school dating), but it’s risk nonetheless. Have you ever seen so much risk-taking in a student’s life that it started to drive you a little crazy? I know I have. But what I want to encourage you with today is that maybe… just maybe… it’s part of God’s design.

Brain development fascinates me. Specifically, development that affects the way I do ministry is what fascinates me. I learned very early on in ministry that during puberty, a person’s brain is still not fully developed. One of the biggest parts that has yet to grow is the frontal lobe. What is the frontal lobe responsible for? Oh, just a few important things – rationalizing, decision-making, responsibility, wisdom, empathizing, speculation, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that it’s kind of important.

So before you get frustrated at your student for not thinking properly, think about what’s happening in their brain. They may not be using the frontal lobe of their brain, which in turn makes it really hard to rationalize and think (or, speculate) about the consequences in the nearby future. I know this may still frustrate you, but remember that God created all things, and declared that what he created was in fact “good.” So bear with me for a moment while I attempt to expose the “good” that this can bring to our students.

Let’s do a case-study for a moment. Let’s say Brad in all of his non-frontal-lobe goodness decides to think about what he’s hearing at small group about the love and grace of Jesus and how God has a bigger plan for his life. He starts to think that giving his life to Jesus is a great idea. If his frontal lobe was in full use, he may begin to speculate what his friends may say if he becomes a Christian and give in to the fear that keeps him from making that decision. He may even begin to rationalize that he has a good thing going and doesn’t need God. You see, while the frontal lobe development is a GOOD thing, it can also hinder students from making a tough decision, including following Jesus. Maybe this has something to do with Jesus’ statement on the brain development of human beings: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

Mark Oestreicher (who blogs here) writes in his new book, “A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains“:

…Teenagers’ natural risk-taking behavior and lack of inhibitions and “good” decision-making is what allows them to discover the boundaries in the world. They’re able to step over the line in a way we normally wouldn’t, which helps them discover where the line actually exists (11).

Basically, the later-development of the frontal lobe helps students learn in ways we can’t teach them with our words. Their experiences guide them to deeper truths about life and free them up to make important identity decisions. As Marko later states in the book, “I see the creativity of God all over this” (12).

Oh, and you know Brad, the risky student I mentioned above? After a couple years of discipling him, he told me at a retreat that he wants to take his experience with bikes and turn it into a ministry where he provides bikes to villages in Africa to help them with transporting clean water (and teaching the kids to do tricks, I bet!). How cool is that?!

In what ways have you seen the risky-behavior of students be a positive thing instead of a negative thing?

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I received the above comment yesterday on our middle school ministry Instagram account, and it made my day. Why? Because I spend time every week trying to think of the next “crazy thing” we could do in our weekend services that could help create an environment where unchurched students feel comfortable. This past weekend it was called the “Impossible Shot,” where one-by-one students had one chance to throw a roll of toilet paper from the stage through the toilet seat (hooked to the end of a pole) in the back of the room. I strongly believe that having fun is integral to the discipleship process in middle school ministry because it brings down walls (and I’m not just talking about the literal church walls that end up with holes in them…). This comment reminded me that everything speaks in our ministry… So whether you are a youth pastor, a volunteer small group leader, or even a parent – remember that having fun with your middle school students creates memories and environments that they will want to return to and ultimately hear more about Jesus.

What’s the latest “fun” thing you’ve done with students? What fun element are you particularly proud of from your experience?

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?

Recently I was talking to a few other friends who are doing middle school ministry, and in the midst of sharing some ideas of things we’re trying, I shared a creative idea we tried in the past several months. It worked really well for us, so I wanted to share with you all.

Before I begin, I have to confess that my inspiration came from Pinterest. There are actually amazing ideas for churches on Pinterest. I basically found a holidays page and adapted one idea into a youth ministry challenge. So before any guys start judging me (all out of fun I’m sure!), get on there and look around, and TRY not to be inspired!

LIFT Bucket ListThe idea is called the “LIFT Holiday Bucket List.” (LIFT is the name of our middle school program.) Basically, it was a fun ongoing challenge to students to complete a list of holiday activities between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. The challenges were designed for students to have fun and also to serve others. Here are a couple examples of Holiday Bucket List challenges we used:

  • Create an epic blanket fort
  • Rake the leaves or shovel snow for a neighbor
  • Have a 3-movie marathon
  • Serve a meal at a homeless shelter
  • Give a secret Christmas gift to someone
  • Create the coolest Christmas ornament
  • Scrape the ice off your parents’ car windows

This was a huge hit with students! But the most successful part of the whole challenge was the photo-sharing. We told students to take pictures as they accomplished items on the Bucket List and tag it with the hashtag #LIFTbucketlist on Instagram. If students didn’t have Instagram, they could post to our Facebook page or e-mail them to us and we would post with our @LIFTscc account. But I would venture to guess that 90% of our middle schoolers have Instagram.

On our last Sunday before Christmas, we had a pre-service and post-service slideshow of everyone who had posted a picture with #LIFTbucketlist (which was 100+ at the time). It was really cool to see students get excited about their picture on the big screen. Some of our Life Groups even accomplished bucket list items together, which created great memories!

If you want the file to our version of the Holiday Bucket List, send me an e-mail at dhausknecht@southlandchristian.org and I’ll share it with you! Also, search Instagram for #liftbucketlist to check out a few of the pictures that were posted! (Most of the profiles are private, so you will probably only be able to see a few, but you’ll catch the drift!)

Have you tried anything like this in your ministry or with your kids? Comment with any ideas you’ve had!

New YearsIt’s officially 2013. This past year flew by so quickly. I sit here in my new reclining chair overwhelmed by the amount of change and blessings that my wife and I have experienced. I find that in order to be truly thankful in my life, I need to write it down and document it. My blogs end up being an online journal of sorts that I, for some odd reason, give public access to. But I do love writing, so here is my 2012 in review:

  • In March, Nicole and I packed up all of our things and moved across the country to Lexington, KY, where I took a job as the Middle School Pastor at Southland Christian Church. We moved into a tiny, little apartment and started our new lives. While it was truly painful to leave Colorado and our family and friends, we know without a doubt that God called us here. 
  • In June, Nicole got her dream job as a social worker at an organization that helps those who are physically and mentally handicapped. It is an incredible feeling as a husband to watch my wife being able to live out her calling in such an awesome way.
  • In July, we succumbed to the cuteness of a puppy at a pet-adoption event and took home our little black lab/border collie mix, named Wrigley. (Yes, we are Cubs fans in everything). The early days and weeks were hard, but it’s funny how God can use even a dog to teach me and mold me in the areas of patience and dying to self.
  • In July, I also got the chance to take our middle schoolers to summer camp, where I had the privilege of baptizing two of our students. It was one of those moments where I really started to feel at home here where God had called us.
  • In August, I got the chance to implement the first big change in the middle school ministry, adding a second service on Sunday mornings. This allowed us to reach a larger amount of students on Sunday mornings, and, while numbers do not necessarily mean success (I hope you hear me on this one), it increased our average attendance by nearly 25%. Now we have the opportunity to steward our influence well as we disciple hundreds of middle schoolers.
  • In October, I had the opportunity to attend the Middle School Ministry Campference in Seymour, IN, with a bunch of like-minded people who also love middle schoolers. It was such an incredible event put on by the Youth Cartel that gave me the opportunity to meet so many others who are seeking the Kingdom of God, one middle school student at a time. I laughed a lot and came away with so many new ideas. (On the last night, there were about 30 of us who went to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the last World Series game… Can you imagine that many middle school youth workers in one restaurant?… Controlled chaos.)
  • In November, Nicole and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary. God blessed me with one beautiful, perfect wife! Days after our anniversary we got to move into a new rental home, which was a very timely gift from God!
  • richmond road campusIn December, I spent a good amount of every work day preparing for the launch of Southland’s 3rd campus here in Lexington on Richmond Road. I will be overseeing the middle school ministry at that campus (in addition to the Harrodsburg Road campus) until we hire a Student Director. Launching a brand new ministry has been fun and overwhelming at the same time, but one thing I do know for sure: Jesus has big plans for the people who will be there. I’m so privileged to be a part of it.

There are so many other things that happened that deserve some recognition, but that would take a much longer post. Suffice it to say that I am excited to be following a big God who has greater plans and dreams for my life than I ever could have imagined. Through all my doubts and insecurities, Jesus has been so patient with me in 2012. I pray that God continues to do GREATER things (John 14:12) in 2013 in all of your lives as well!

What Energizes YouI’ve always been fascinated by anything that teaches me more about myself. That statement may seem a little narcissistic, but it’s still true. Whenever I learn something new about myself, it’s like the moment I put my contact lenses into my eyes in the morning – everything in life is just a little clearer.

Lately I’ve been learning more about my personality through a couple different experiences. Here are just a few of those lessons:

  • My Myers-Briggs personality type (ENFP) was described by a certain personality test as a “planner of change.” The words planner and change don’t usually go into the same sentence or phrase. And yet somehow that’s an impeccable description of how I think. I am always thinking and dreaming of new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s truly what energizes me. (The same personality test, however, described the ENFP weakness as “lack of follow through,” which is also a painful truth about me!)
  • I love thinking, talking, reading, and doing discipleship. I hear that word and my mind begins to wander. I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done poorly – which probably doesn’t actually count as “doing” it if it’s done poorly, as it’s one of those things that either happens or doesn’t happen. I have two new books sitting on my desk, and both have to do with discipleship (“Multiply” by Francis Chan and “Masterpiece: The Art of Discipling Youth” by Paul Martin). I contribute a lot of this passion to one of my mentors, Alan Briggs, who once asked me a simple question, “Have you ever been discipled by someone?” My ambiguous answer to that question led me on a quest to make sure every middle schooler that comes through our ministry can answer YES to that question one day. This discussion and quest is truly what energizes me.
  • Whenever I get to be creative with a sermon or sermon series, as well as finding creative games that get middle schoolers excited about being at church, I get energized.
  • When I get to go on date nights with my beautiful wife and serve Kingdom purposes alongside each other, I get energized.
  • When I’m around other people who are just as excited as I am about middle school ministry and discipleship, I get energized.
  • When I am writing and blogging simply out of passion and excitement for the subject instead of doing it for the praise and approval of other people, I get energized. (This should also explain my absence from writing for the last couple months. After realizing I was getting sucked into the praise and approval side of blogging too much, I needed to hit pause. That doesn’t energize me in the way I want to be energized. I’d rather write for the glory of God and to inspire others in their ministry with middle schoolers than for any other reason.)

So there you go. Those are a few of the lessons I’m learning about myself. Why did I write this for a middle school ministry blog? Because every middle school youth worker, volunteer, parent, and student gets energized by different things. One of the keys to leading well is tapping into the things that energize the people you work with and leaning into it for kingdom purposes. For example, I’ve learned that the 6th grade guys in my Life Group that I co-lead still very much like things like Lego’s and being creative. So last week at Life Group I had one of the guys bring a bucket of Lego’s. To start our time I asked the guys to build something that represented or symbolized their relationship with Jesus. Every single guy had an amazing creation and description. One guy built a Lego heart that didn’t quite connect at the top because according to him, he feels close to Jesus, but there’s a gap that still needs to be filled before he thinks it will be complete. He even put a Lego spider web in the middle of the heart to signify to gap he feels. Two words: creative energy.

What energizes the specific students that you are discipling? Whether you are parenting them or pastoring them, your students have things that energize them that you can tap into for kingdom purposes.

Today during lunch my wife was watching a show called “Rachael” (or at least that’s my alibi, and I’m sticking to it). They were doing a segment where they were interviewing a family who ran a restaurant together. At one point the mother of the family started talking about their desires to expand the menu and offer new exciting options for customers. They wanted to get creative with their menu. But as she talked about their creative desires, she expressed her frustration in not ever having the time to do that while also maintaining the restaurant – you know, the cleaning, the budgeting, the customer service, the shopping for ingredients, etc.. And then she said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget:

It’s hard to think outside the box when you’re too busy building the box.

In one sentence, this woman articulated every frustration I have felt for the last several years running a middle school ministry. On one side I have a strong conviction that I need to “think outside the box” and creatively present the gospel and the truths of Scripture to engage the unique minds of my middle schoolers. Many preachers have said that it’s a sin to make the Bible boring for the listener, and I completely agree. But on the other side, I have to “build the box” with the 400 items on my To-Do list, including (but not limited to): replying to e-mails, running meetings, returning phone calls, interviewing and meeting with leaders, negotiating conflict, and on and on and on… And if I’m honest, I yield to the “other side” of the to-do list if there is ever a conflict between getting creative and gettings things done.

But then a tension begins to build. When I only focus on the to-do list and “building the box,” I start to lose my fire and passion for what I’m doing. I start going through the motions to try to meet expectations. Now, let me stop here and assert that building the box is absolutely essential. If you just sit around coming up with creative ideas without ever pulling the trigger on them, all you’re doing is day-dreaming. But, as Bill Hybels said at the Willow Creek Leader Summit this year, you and I have been called as leaders not to respond to things all day, but to move things forward. And we can’t move things forward without a little thinking outside the box.

So whether you are a youth pastor, a parent, a teacher, or volunteer, here are a few thoughts that help me to stop building the box occasionally in order to think outside the box:

  1. Get away from the box. When I am struggling to get creative with a sermon I’m preparing, I have to get away from the office. If you need WiFi, go to a coffee shop or somewhere like Panera. These places are intentionally designed with color and art to encourage the creative minds. It’s ironic, really. If I want to do something creative at church, I have to be anywhere except the church. Find a third place (home is first place, work is second place, creative space is third place).
  2. Find other people who are in a similar box. The best ideas happen in community. I get so much joy from connecting with other youth pastors and swapping ideas. You have to realize that you don’t have to come up with every creative idea on your own. Find something similar that someone else has done, adapt it for your context, and see what happens!
  3. Identify sources of inspiration. Around the student ministries office at Southland, everyone calls me “the Resource Guy.” This is simply because I do lot of research around the web to find creative ideas, and often times I find something that I’ll pass on to other people. I get inspired looking at a few different websites and blogs, such as More Than Dodgeball, Stuff You Can Use, the Source for Youth Ministry, and yes, even Pinterest. I may lose some man points on that last one, but honestly there is a lot of good youth ministry stuff on Pinterest. I have two boards on Pinterest named “Church Design” and “Youth Ministry Ideas” that I use frequently for new ideas.

If you are like me and believe that making the Bible boring for listeners is a sin, then let’s stop building the box occasionally to start thinking outside the box.

How do you start getting creative? What sources of inspiration do you use to help jump-start your creativity?