Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Who Wants To Be a Thousandaire?

It is difficult now to remember just how insanely popular the prime time version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was when Regis Philbin debuted it in 1999.  It was on several nights a week, and USAmerica became obsessed with the show.  As with so many things in our culture, the show was just begging to be copied and integrated into student ministry- so that is exactly what we did!

We picked a Sunday evening well in advance and advertised that we were going to playing Who Want To Be a Thousandaire?  Wesley Memorial UMC didn't have any cash to give away, but we would have many levels of prizes, starting with a milk shake and moving up through CDS, dinner for 2, a new Bible, individual trips and the "million dollar" prize of an entire free year of youth ministry activities.  That included a free Mission Trip, free New York trip, free Night of Joy and and any other trips we took.  Free meals at events like SHO-Time.  Free everything.  If you used it all, it would be worth close to $2000 by our estimate, so it was a huge prize.  Kids got excited.  We also let them know well in advance that all of the questions would be based on the Bible.  They needed to know the books of the Bible; the parables of Jesus; the great Old Testament stories; the 10 Commandments; the Beatitudes; and the Christmas and Easter stories.  I found a few resources with questions, but wound up writing them all myself.  Just as on the show,they would get harder the deeper into the game a contestant went.

We also tried to make the game seem real when we played it.  We used lighting, sound effects, video and everything we could think of to make it special.  One of our Youth Counselors played the Regis role (except when we played in Waycross; I did it then- see picture).  We picked contestants at random, then allowed them to decline if they didn't want to play.  Each player got 3 lifelines- ask an adult, poll the audience and 50/50.  It was quite an event.  Everyone had a blast, and we gave away a lot of great stuff- but no one ever won the big prize.

If you are looking for a way to get some of your "fringe" students into the Bible and to pump up some excitement for your youth meetings, I highly recommend this event.  And yes-  that's my final answer!  Blessings!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Memories of An Old Dude- ME!

A Praise Band in 1982...
For the vast majority of the years from 1978-2007 I worked for churches and religious organizations. I witnessed a lot of growth and a lot of changes during those years. I was a part of one of the first generations of career youth pastors. Up until the late 1970's, youth work was something you did on your way to something else.  Can you believe that once upon a time people thought the only difference between being a youth pastor and being a senior pastor was age?  Most full-time youth leaders were hired as Associate Pastors or Directors of Christian Education and then thrown to the wolves, regardless of their gifts.  I was around when pretty much the only resources for youth leaders were the Ideas Books.  I was there when youth groups were after-thoughts for most churches, with no budgets and no staff.  I witnessed youth ministry become a priority in many churches, with all kinds of money thrown at the ministry. With one move in 1994 I went from a $800 budget to a $12,000 budget- for almost the same number of youth!  I worked at one church for $50 per month and did not get paid during the summer, because in those early days most student ministries shut down for those months. During those years I worked at a summer camp.  I served as the regional youth ministry resource person and event planner for Quakers in New England in 1985-86, serving over 80 churches, and was paid $14,000 for the year. In 2000 I took a position at a church in Illinois that paid me over $70,000 for doing less work than any other position I have ever held.  And now I am seeing churches cut staff and budgets as the economy impacts ministry.  At least 2 of the positions I once held no longer exist.  We have come full circle.

When I started there were no cell phones, no VCRs (yes, I said VCR!), no PCs and no cable TV.  We did have CB radios (Breaker 1-9, this here's The Bandit!).  The only CCM artists I had ever heard of were Amy Grant, Keith Green, Larry Norman, Don Francisco and some lady named Evie.  A Praise Band was called a guitar.  I watched as the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention went from a once a year event with about 600 in attendance to the multiple city, many thousands of participants events we see today.  In those days Doug Fields was just a guy in Jim Burns' youth group.  When I started, GROUP was a magazine for the students in your youth group- and that was all.  No work camps and no magazine for leaders- just a long-since extinct event for students called the National Christian Youth Congress.  There is no truth to the rumor that Moses was in my first youth group- although Duffy Robbins once told a seminar I had been his youth pastor.  He also told them I had been his mother's youth pastor.  Seriously!  But you get the point- I have seen a lot.

Youth Ministry has certainly changed a lot in 30 years, and many of the changes have made student ministry much better and helped us have a greater impact in the lives of the youth we serve.  But sometimes I think we have changed simply for the sake of change.  We have bought into new ideas without prayerfully considering their full impact; we have been guilty of being trendy. We have chosen what "looks good" over what works.  In my humble opinion we have too often chosen program and style over relationships.  In any case, today's youth pastor needs to be aware of their heritage.  I hoped this helped a little bit with that journey, and I will continue to remind us of how things "used to be."  Blessings!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Digital Scavenger Hunts

Everyone drinking from the same cup
The Scavenger Hunt has been a part of youth group activity since Grog the Caveman first had the group from T-Rex Baptist Church go out to look for fire and wheels- but it is still a winner.  It has taken many forms over the years, but my favorite has always involved some sort of pictures.  In my earliest years we did Polaroid Scavenger Hunts; we then moved on to Video Hunts and finally to the more modern Digital age.  These are not only a riot for youth and adults to be a part of, they also provide you with great promo pics for the present and excellent blackmail pics to use years later!  There are 1000 ways to do this event, but here's what worked for me...

  • You'll need to make an educated guess at how many students will show up, and have more than enough vehicles with adult drivers to safely transport them all.  The more teams the merrier!  You can either let students divide themselves up and pick a driver, or (and I love this one) let the drivers "draft" their teams.  That adds a "mixer" element to the event.  And, needless to say (and yet I am saying it!) every car needs a camera that will allow you to download the photos easily at the completion of the event.

Team with local Baskin Robbins
  • Make a list of pictures they need to take in the allotted time (usually 2 hours).  Make sure you have more things on the list than they can possibly do in the time period.  Some items should require specific locations; others should ask for pictures of specific actions.
  • Give each picture opportunity a point value.  The more "unusual" the photo, the higher the point value.  For instance, a picture of the group in front of another church's sign might be worth 50 points.  A picture of the group carrying a total stranger across a street might be worth 500. This system helps insure you will get more of the best pictures, and also reminds the teams that this is NOT a race.  It's about points.  
  • To provide a little intrigue I always made one of the highest value items getting a pic of ANOTHER one of the groups taking one of their pictures.
  • Involve the community.  Send them to church member's homes, local restaurants and anyplace else where the activity will generate some buzz for your youth ministry. 
  • To keep things lively, offer a seriously good prize to each member of the winning team.  And to keep things on schedule, give serious point penalties for every minute after the events end time that a team returns to the church. 
  • Entire Team dressed the same.
  • Have an adult on stand by with a vehicle at the church in case anyone has car trouble or an emergency.  Make sure their cell number is printed on the official event list.
Guys in women's clothing @ JC Penny's!
That should be enough to get you started on one of the most fun events you will ever do!  Just remember that the key to the entire thing is being wildly creative with your list of photo opps.  Do this once and do it right, and I give you my personal guarantee that the 2nd time you do it you'll need twice as many cars and drivers.  "If you take pictures of them, they will come..."  Blessings to you!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Youth Ministry 101- Visiting With Students

Back in the 1980s I wrote a regular column for a publication under the name of Bubba, and called it Greetings From Stumpy Point.  Stumpy Point was a small, fictitious church where Bubba was the youth pastor.  If you've ever struggled with communicating with your students one-on-one, then Bubba actually had some good advice to offer.  Here's one of my favorite columns from 1989:

Hello again, Grapevine readers!  Do you often feel uncomfortable trying to visit with your high school or middle school youth?  Sometimes we get the picture in our minds that when we are one-on-one with our kids we need to be doing one of three things- evangelizing, counselling or advertising.  We don't want to miss a chance to lead them to Christ, to turn their lives around or to promote our youth groups.  And certainly all of those things are important.  But none of that is really visiting with your youth.  When you visit you should talk about the things they want to talk about in a setting that they are comfortable in.

Here's an example of how NOT to visit!  About a year ago I asked one of my high school guys, Elroy, to come see me at the church.  He stopped by, came in my office and sat down.  He looked like a man before a judge about to be sentenced.  For the next 45 minutes I talked about my youth program and how it could help Elroy.  He blinked and nodded a few times and then left quickly when our time was up.  It took me almost a year to get Elroy to come back.  But I learned from my mistakes, and after a few more disasters I figured out that my office was not the right place.  It was MY turf.  Visits should take place on theirs!  So now I do most of my visits at Bart's Burger Doodle over a milk shake.  I have learned that the true value of one-on-one time with youth is not in what I say, but in what I hear!  - Bubba

Make sure that in addition to seeing your students at church that you see them on their turf- school, home and places they love to hang out.  It will change your relationship with them and open doors for you to share Jesus in a whole new way.  Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mystery Trip Model #2

I told you Monday of our first FUMC-K Mystery Trip- a ridiculously crazy 1996 trip to Myrtle Beach, SC.  In 1998 Jerry Hanbery and I (see picture) decided to do it again.  This time we would replace the wackiness of 18 hours in a van with a more creative approach. This time it would be a middle school only adventure, and our theme would be "Crazy Times."  And this time, Jerry and I had a serious plan...

We loaded up the vans at 7 PM on Friday, July 31st and hit the road.  This time there were no leaks;  no one on the two vans had any idea where we were going.  We headed north on the Florida Turnpike, and the kids were buzzing about where they thought we might be headed.  We then turned north on I-75, headed towards Ocala.  I was driving the always-iffy blue van, and I had the lead.  The blue van's issues played an important part in our plan.  About 4 miles south of Ocala, I "noticed" that the van seemed to be running hot.  I pulled off the side of the road and Jerry followed me, getting out of the white van to come assist me as I checked under the hood.  We had taped a baggie of water under the hood, and when I poured it on the engine (out of sight of the youth) steam went everywhere.  Jerry and I did some serious moaning and complaining about the "stupid blue van" and then returned to our vans, telling the students that the van was over-heating and that we were going to go ahead and stop for the night so we could try and get it fixed.  We stopped at several motels and I went in to see if they had any rooms (I had a great time telling the front desk clerks what we were doing so the youth could see me having conversations with them), only to return and tell the group there was no vacancy.  The youth were now getting a little nervous.  We finally found rooms at a Super 8 Motel (where, unknown to the youth, we had reservations!) and settled in for the night.  I held a meeting at which I informed the kids that I was going to try to get the van fixed, but that I did not know what the following day would hold.  We might just have to stay in Ocala. I drove off to get the van fixed while they enjoyed the pool.  I was not back when Jerry sent them to bed.  They went to bed grumpy.  It was perfect...

The following morning we woke everyone up early and told them to get ready, the van was fixed and we were leaving!  We hurried them, half-asleep, onto the vans and hit the road.  We were hoping that they would be too groggy to notice that we were now heading south on I-75.  And for a while, they were.  Slowly but surely, they begin to notice something had changed.  We stopped at a Burger King for breakfast, and the questions began in earnest.  We got back on the road, and finally some of the youth began to guess our final destination- Busch Gardens in Tampa.  And then- as if a fog was lifting- they began to realize that the entire "breakdown" the night before had all been planned.  We had fooled them completely, and they could not believe it- and a few were not real happy about it.  Jerry and I were giddy- we thought it was one of the best things we had ever done!  We went on to have a great day at the park, and a wonderful weekend, including a great time of worship on Sunday morning.  We wanted to make it memorable, and we had.  It was just one more time when a wild and crazy idea helped some students discover the presence of Jesus in their lives.

If you want to plan a Mystery Trip for your students, here are a few tips:

  • Be outrageous with your planning.  Stay away from normal.  The idea is to blow their minds!
  • Give out as little info as you can get away with before leaving.  Parents blab!
  • Don't bait and switch.  If you advertise it as a wild and crazy weekend of fellowship, don't take them someplace and try to make them memorize Lamentations.  Know your purpose- and in the case of a Mystery Trip, the purpose should be FUN! 
  • Make sure when you return that you let your youth tell lots of stories.  The students who missed this trip should come away feeling like they never want to miss a youth event EVER AGAIN!
I found out a few years later that there were a couple of students on that trip who NEVER got the message that the entire first night had been staged.  I found out when one of them asked me, "Where were we going to go on that Mid-High Mystery Trip before the van broke down?"  And the Oscar goes to Jerry Hanbery and Carl Jones...  

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mystery Trips (Vol. 1)

I've told you about Mystery Events and Gorilla Kidnappings- now it's time to share with you a couple of ideas we had for a bit more elaborate mystery event- The Mystery Trip!

Creativity is such an important part of student ministry.  As a youth worker you are constantly striving to come up with ideas that have a WOW factor.  You want to keep students a bit off-guard, wondering what you might come up with next.  You are always seeking new ideas, or at least ideas that are new to your group.  Summer is always one of the best times to really cut loose with wild, wacky & insane ideas.  You find should always push the limits of what is acceptable and what is possible, all because you have to get them to show up before you can share Jesus with them.  And every now and then, you cross the line between the creative and the insane!  Here's one example...

On August 2nd, 1996, the student ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee went flying over that line.  As part of our summer ministries, we decided to do a Mystery Trip.  Students could sign-up, pay their $35 and have absolutely no idea where they were going.  We would give parents the information when they arrived at the church on the day of the adventure.  There was a tremendous amount of excitement generated by this new event, and about 25 of us (see group photo at top) prepared to share in the mystery.  The only people who knew where we were going were Jerry Hanbery (my intern) and myself.  We had decided to take the group to Myrtle Beach, SC.  Many of the students had never been, and we were planning a major trip there in the summer of 1997.  A weekend in MB seemed like a wonderful idea for an adventure.  And it was- eventually.

We left the church at 7 PM on Friday, August 2nd, but we had to wait for someone to finish their participation in a fashion show at the local mall, so we wound up sitting in the mall parking lot until around 8 PM.  During this wait, Kendall Crotty began to pass the word around that we were going to Myrtle Beach.  His mom had ratted us out (why is it always the parents who screw up mystery events?)!  Before we ever began our Mystery Trip, the mystery was solved.  That was the first bummer.  The second bummer was that I had been to MB a hundred times in my life, but never from Kissimmee, FL.  It's a long way.  A very long way.  About 9 hours.  I'll let you do the math, but suffice it to say that we arrived at the Days Inn in MB in the very early hours of Saturday morning.  We arrived, checked in, and went to bed.  It was noon before we were up and about and enjoying the sun and surf.

We had a great weekend.  We played together, ate together, visited the Myrtle Beach Pavilion together and worshipped together.  We spent 18 hours in vans to spend 30 hours at the beach when we lived in Florida; that was the insane part.  But we had wanted a memorable event, one that the kids would talk about for years to come- and we got one!  We had titled the weekend Live To Tell after the Geoff Moore and the Distance song for two reasons.  One, our theme for worship was that our lives should tell the people we meet that we were followers of Jesus.  Secondly, we wanted them to know that this weekend was about survival; that they had lived, and should spread the word that strange and wonderful things were happening in the youth ministry of FUMC-K.  On both counts the weekend was an amazing success.  It is safe to say that in those years Jerry and I were often wrong, but we were seldom boring...

We did another Mystery Trip a couple of years later that was not as insane, but was much more dramatic.  That story, and some tips on how to make your trip succeed, are coming Wednesday...  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid!

In a previous post I told you about some mystery events we planned for my youth ministries over the years to keep the students on their toes.  Today I want to tell you about a little more elaborate event we pulled off three times at three different churches- and all with astounding success!

It all began in High Point, NC in the late 1980s.  I was looking for a way to help some of our less committed youth feel more a part of our student ministry at Springfield Friends Meeting, and I wanted it to be something with pizazz. A few years earlier I had read of a group that organized a "kidnapping" of some youth on a Saturday morning, and from that a plan began to brew in my brain.  I advertised to our kids that something big was going to happen on a particular Saturday morning, and that is was crucial that they be at the church by 7 AM. If they weren't there, then they needed to Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid!  I called a few parents of students I felt confident would not show up and arranged to arrive at their home early on the specified date.  The plan was simple.  We would awaken the "victim" with loud noises and then take them away for breakfast with our group.  We intended to startle them and make the moment memorable.  To insure those things, I rented a gorilla costume.  One of our high school guys, Jamie Robinson, wore the costume with great joy and did a wonderful job of grabbing our unsuspecting students and hauling them away.  It was awesome. And effective- although as you can see in the picture, Keri Vinson did take his head off!  Several of the kidnapees went on to become important members of our youth family.

I decided to repeat the adventure my first summer at FUMC-Kissimmee. This time the targets would be our newest group of 6th graders who were just joining the youth ministry.  Jerry Hanbery, who would later serve 4 years as my summer intern, was so excited he showed up at our house next door to the church around 6 AM.  My wife was not amused.  Jerry had gone with me to pick out the costume he would wear, and so instead of a gorilla this time they kids were grabbed by Chewbacca!  For reasons I cannot fathom, I have no pictures.  But again- it was AWESOME!!!

I set it up once more in 2005 while serving Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa.  This time the event featured a member of our Youth Ministry Team, Josh Shapiro, wearing a PINK Gorilla suit.  It went a little less smoothly because a couple of the parents had blabbed and because one of the kids slept with a gun next to his bed! It ended on a high note when we stopped by the home of Travis Aiken.  Travis was a regular who had not shown up, so no one at his house knew we were coming. It caused quite a scene, and Travis attempted to beat up the gorilla- but it was all good!

The Gorilla Kidnapping event is a winner in so many ways.  It allows for great promotion and anticipation, for extreme creativity, and for a very exciting Saturday morning with your students.  I would encourage every youth pastor to try it at least once.  Just make sure and tell the parents to keep their mouths shut...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mystery Events

With apologies to Rev. Jesse Jackson, I have often said that three of the enemies of a thriving student ministry are, "Sameness, Tameness and Lameness."  I'm not even sure how many of those are actual words, but they do serve to get my point across. If your youth know what is coming all of the time, they will become complacent and perhaps a bit bored.  One way to spice up the summer calendar is to schedule some random Mystery Events.  I tried to do this at least once a summer to keep the kids on their toes.  Most times the events were small and not a big deal, but the youth always loved them.  Here's the publicity for one such event, taken from one of my Summer Brochures:

On Saturday, July 19th, Carl and a few of the Youth Counselors are going to a late movie.  You are invited to join them.  What movie, you may ask? HA!  That is information you cannot have.  Which theater?  More information that is for us to know and you to find out!  Simply meet at the church at 8 PM, bring money, bring your friends- and bring a parachute.  We will have you home by midnight- or sooner if you forget your parachute!  Here's one hint about what we will be seeing: It's a movie. We'll see you at the Late Show!

We always had a nice turnout and had great times at these events, which also included mystery meals, mystery games and mystery visits to the houses of our students.  We also took two completely wacky and insane mystery trips (those stories another day).  And then there was the most infamous of all the mystery adventures: Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid!  Few tings I ever did in youth ministry generated as much buzz as those three Saturday mornings.  Come back Friday to get the details...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Movie Marathons

Another simple fellowship event that can be done most anytime during the Summer is a Movie Marathon.  There are a million different ways to do an event like this, but here's how I usually did it.  I would pick a date and a location (generally the youth room at the church) and announce we would be watching 3 movies back-to-back-to-back.  I liked to do it during the day, because that is when the most students are bored silly.  We would provide pizza for lunch, popcorn for a snack and plenty of beverages.  All the youth had to do was show up, no reservations required.  It was free (although you could charge if you need to).  And we saw some AWESOME movies!

Movie selection is key.  You know your kids and your church, and I would never tell you how to go about choosing which DVDs to view.  But I would suggest that they be somehow related so that you have a theme.  We did a Star Wars trilogy day (back when there were only 3); we did a Pixar movie day; we did a "Sports Movie" day (featuring Cool Runnings, Angels in the Outfield and Remembering the Titans); and we did a Goofball Comedy day with Wayne's World, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Monty Python's Holy Grail.  We even did a Tom Hanks day, but I don't remember what movies we used. If I was doing one right now I might do Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, or a Bill Murray collection.  That's just me.  You have to choose based on the taste of your group and what you feel is appropriate.

Whenever possible we also did things to make the event special.  For instance, the day we did Star Wars one of our parents (who was a sound engineer for the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular @ Disney's Hollywood Studios) brought in some huge speakers and hooked them up so that the bass from the films would shake the youth room.  It did- just ask the rest of the church staff who had offices one floor below us! :)  Or invite the students to dress as a favorite character or bring related toys.  Be creative, and the youth will love it!

One other thought- a movie does not have to be The Passion of the Christ to contain significant moments that can open a discussion about faith.  There is theology in most eveything. Perhaps the most theological movie I have ever seen is Pleasantville. So if you want the films to lead to deeper discussions, just choose wisely.

So there you go- another low preparation, low cost, high fellowship value event that will have your students buzzing and get them off their couches and into your youth room- which means more "face time" for you!  As for me, I think I'm going to have my own Movie Marathon this summer.  Lord of the Rings trilogy, here I come- AGAIN!  Be blessed my friends!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Great Race

Almost a Pyramid!
If you are looking for a summer event that will draw a crowd and put a quick end to those old "church is boring" rumors, then The Great Race is for you!  It's simple to put together and loads of fun.  It works for any size group.  And it's time tested.  We did them when I was in high school- you know, before electricity!  :)

Here's how it works.  You put together a relay race featuring 10 to 12 events, and divide your youth into at least 2 teams.  The larger your ministry, the more teams.  Each team then decides on a team member to complete each leg of the race.  Pretty standard stuff, right?

An actual Pyramid!
Here's what make it interesting- diversity.  You can have a couple of events that require athletic ability, such as a distance run or a free-throw shoot.  But then, you just need to go crazy.  Use the old "eat crackers and whistle" routine.  Have one event be singing one of your favorite youth group songs from memory while being blasted with a water hose.  Use brain-teasers and math problems.  Have someone chug a Coke and belch.  Be as creative as possible- and as inclusive.  Try to have an event for everyone.

Eating Contests are always fun!
And then have a big finish.  Make each team gather at the finish line and accomplish some things together as a team.  I usually gave each team a bucket of water, a tiny paper cup and a 2-liter bottle and made them fill the bottle by passing the cup back (always touching EVERY team member) to the bottle.  I always had them make up a team cheer (with movements); and the finale was for each team to build a pyramid using all team members.  Great moments, great memories and great photo opps!

So there you have it.  Many of you are far more creative than I, so add your own twists and have a Great Race this summer.  Here's my guarantee- have this event once and your students will make certain it becomes an annual event! 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Chain of Prayer

I have written here before that summers were the busiest time of year for the student ministries I served after 1987.  I always felt that the best way to start a summer was the same as the best way to start a day- with prayer.  After a few hit & miss ideas, I decided to try a Chain of Prayer as our summer kick-off- and I never looked back.

The Chain of Prayer is not an original idea, and there are lots of ways to do it.  Today I will share with you the things that worked best with my groups over the years.  We would pick a set number of hours on a date at the beginning of summer vacation and set them aside for our COP.  We did as many as 24 hours and as few as 6; it really depends on the size of your ministry and how many students you can get involved.  The hours would then be divided into half hour sections.  Students would be asked to commit to 30 minutes of prayer at the church.  The idea was that for whatever number of hours we chose, there would be someone praying for our church, our youth ministry, our summer programs and our people.  It's a very powerful idea.

I know of groups who have done this and allowed students to pray at home and just call in at the beginning and end of their session, but I don't feel like that has quite the same impact.  If everyone comes to the church (sanctuary, chapel, youth room, your office- you make the call!) then there is a greater connection.  Plus it allows you to provide the pray-er with devotional materials and a conducive atmosphere, such as a darkened space with candles.  Thirty minutes can be a long time for a teenager, and it helps for them to be in a place that feels like a sacred space for that time. Also, everyone coming to the same spot allows you to keep an ever-growing list of prayer requests as each person adds their own joy and concerns.  And finally, everyone coming to the church allows for you to greet and thank each participant and pray for them, as well as walk each person in and out of the space to keep the chain connected. That was always my favorite part...

I have a couple of final tips for leaders.  It's fine to have more than one person praying at a time, but try not to have best friends sharing a time slot.  They may have difficulty with focus.  Secondly, do NOT play music in the prayer space.  We need to to teach our youth the wonders of "being still" and enjoying silence. If they want to sing a praise song or break out a hymnal, that's wonderful!  But don't just provide background noise. And finally, be willing to fill the gaps.  If a student (or adult volunteer; they can sign up too!) doesn't show or no one signs up for any specific time slot, you need to fill that 30 minutes.  The whole idea is that for those hours, your group is in a unbroken chain of prayer to the Father.  As Fleetwood Mac would say, "Never break the chain."

So give it a try!  Start small and see the amazing things that can happen to your group when you teach your students how to pray.  I'll see you Thursday to tell you about The Great Race.  Join us!

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's SHO-Time!

SHO-Time, Olive Garden Style!
One of the most popular ideas I ever came up with for my student ministries was called SHO-Time (Senior High Only).  The origin was simple enough.  For most of my 28 years as a youth pastor our high school students and middle school students met together on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights.  I wanted to begin doing some special programming that would allow each of those groups to do things on their own.  SHO-Time was a no-brainer.  I just picked a night and a restaurant and invited our high school students to meet me there, or to meet at the church if they need a ride.  I began the program in 1988; it was still going strong at a 5th different church when I left the ministry in 2007. 

Although SHO-Time began as a once-a-month school year event, it was also a staple of our summer programming.  The laid back, no school limits atmosphere of summer allowed us to visit restaurants that were farther away or required more time to eat.  We always tried to alternate the more expensive places with cheaper ones to keep things affordable.  And during the summer we would often find ways to hang out after the meal, whether by going back to the church or out to a movie or miniature golf.  It just made for another awesome night of fellowship. Plus, it is a wonderful event in which to include your family.  My son Will grew up thinking every kid got to eat out with awesome high school students like he did!

SHO-Time can be easily adjusted to fit your group's needs.  If you already split high school and middle school students, then you could use it to do something special for your 11th and 12th graders.  It's just a great way to do something new for your older youth- and their friends! This is another simple program that attracts new kids like flies to a smelly church van.  It will also give you a good reason to come up with creative ideas to make everyone else in your youth ministry feel special too!

One final note about SHO-Time (and this is HUGE):  No matter if there is only 1 student who shows up, NEVER cancel it.  You can't make anyone feel important if the message you send is, "Just you is not enough."  It's all about relationships, not numbers.

So try SHO-Time at your church, and enjoy!  Check back tomorrow and I'll tell you all about The Chain of Prayer- the best way to start a summer!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer Programs: Happy Hour!

Happy Hour has long been a favorite gimmick of bars and restaurants for drawing in customers with the promise of discounted drinks and a crowd of people.  For the summer of 2003 I was looking for a new way to create fellowship opportunities with my youth group when a different kind of Happy Hour caught my eye.  It seemed our local Sonic Drive-In would be offering half priced drinks from 2-4 PM each day, including milk shakes, lime-aids and sodas.  A plan began to develop...

I went to the manager at Sonic and told him my idea.  One afternoon each week during the summer I would come and "hang out" at one of the covered picnic tables outside the drive-in from 2-4 PM.  During this time, my thought was that any number of my youth might stop by for a few minutes to have a cold drink and chat a while.  He thought it was a great idea and agreed to provide me with half off food coupons as well.  I decided to do it on Wednesdays as a lead in to our big Wednesday Night Live! program.  I included it in our Summer Brochure and awaited the results.

Happy Hour was a big hit, but in a very different way from what I had imagined.  Students tended to show up at 2 PM and stay the entire 2 hours!  There were always folks who dropped by to visit and then left, but every week we were there a core group hung out the entire time.  We played cards, listened to music and talked about their lives.  It tended to be an odd mix of youth each week, so they were building relationships with each other as well as with me.  We ate lots of food, drank lots of drinks and slammed down the occasional banana split. For a couple of summers in Tampa and one in Waycross, these gatherings were a highlight of our summer schedule. 

You may not have a Sonic Drive-In in your community, but I bet you have someplace (even someone's home) where you could do a Happy Hour a few times this summer.  It's cheap, it requires very little planning, and it gives you a great opportunity to encounter students on neutral turf.  And they will bring friends- trust me.  A little cherry lime-aid outreach never hurt anyone!  If you have any questions about planning summer events, feel free to e-mail me youthguy07@aol.com

Join me Monday and I'll tell you about one of my favorite year-round fellowship events that can take on a whole new life in the summertime- SHO-Time!  See you then!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Preacher & the Bear

I once heard it said that youth ministry is like "herding cats."  You may know what your task is, but getting it done is a whole different thing!  My own definition of student ministry is this: God using unlikely heroes to accomplish improbable tasks.  So you think your job is tough?   Try getting a 13 year old boy to sit still and listen for 30 minutes to a guest speaker.  Try getting parents to sign their child up and pay a deposit 6 months in advance of a mission trip.  Try convincing a 21st century teenager that Jesus knows more about life than Lady Gaga or Snooki.  To give you a better feel what youth ministry is really like, I present to you the lyrics of a 1937 folk song, The Preacher & the Bear.  This guy may have been the first youth pastor...

Now the preacher he went out walkin'-  it was on one Sunday morn.
It may have been against his religion but he took his gun along
He shot himself some mighty fine quail, and one little measly hare
But on his way returning home he met a great big...hmmm...
Grizzly Bear

Now the bear sat down in the middle of the road just as mean as he could be
And the Preacher he commenced to shakin' and he climbed a persimmon tree
And the bear stood up, and he rolled his eyes and he shook his ugly head
The Preacher looked up to the skies and these are the words he said
And these are the words he said...

Oh LORD, you delivered Daniel from the lion's den
Delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then
the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace so the Good Book do declare
Well LORD, LORD if you can't help me
for goodness sakes don't you help that bear!

Then the bear commenced to climb the tree and that made the Preacher mad
The Preacher climbed still higher- though it took all the strength he had
Just about them this limb give away and they both came a tumblin' down
And when that Preacher began to pray you could hear it for miles all around


Now they fought all the way down to the river and it was a terrible fight
That bear was really pourin' it on, and the Preacher- well he was doin' all right  (Yaaaay!)
He dragged that beast right down in the river it was...ummm...3 times in & out
Then the bear got loose & he limped away & the Preacher he began to shout!

Oh LORD you delivered Daniel for the lion's den
Delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then...
Now LORD it may not seem like much from where you sit up there
But the hardest job I've ever done...
was baptizing that bear!

And that's the story of the Preacher & the Bear!!!

Youth Pastors of the world, hear this:  Every week (and often every day!) you are out there on the front lines for God- baptizing bears in the name of Jesus.  You are God's unlikely heroes accomplishing his improbable assignments.  Thank you all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Magic of Summer

Summer- it turns me upside down
Summer, Summer, Summer
It's like a merry-go-round...
Oh, Oh it's magic when I'm with you...   -The Cars

For many churches, the end of the school year means the end of another grueling season of student ministry.  You've been consumed with teaching, outreach and trying to learn the latest worship songs.  You've survived a retreat or two, and, if you're old school, maybe even a lock-in.  You've struggled with planning your schedules around the 6 different high schools and 7 different middle schools your youth attend, and you've felt like you never get enough time with the kids.  If any of that applies to you as a youth pastor, then I'd like to offer you some FREEDOM!  Welcome to Summer!

Everyone has heard the stories of the students who are bored to tears by the third day of summer vacation- and those stories are very true (I know- I have a 15 year old)!  Summer is a time when many of your students have more spare hours than at any other point in the year.  As a youth pastor, I was always one to plan huge summer programs, including a mission trip and a "vacation" trip- but that was never the best part of summer for me.  It's just a great time for a youth pastor to hang out with their students and build relationships- often in ways that are far superior to anything you can do during the school year.  Whether you meet on a regular basis all summer long or cut back on programming, there are things you can do that will give you the opportunity to gather smaller groups of students for times of fun, fellowship and any other purpose you might have in mind.  And these events and programs can be done with minimal preparation and effort- and at almost no cost.  They simply require your time.

Starting Friday I am going to share (one at a time) a bunch of things I did over my 28 years in youth ministry to make summers magical.  All of these ideas are so simple and easy to plan that you could add any number of them to your schedule this summer if you so choose.  They are not earth-shakingly creative or unique.  But they worked for me in a variety of situations over almost three decades of ministry.  It seems to me that everyone has a choice to make about summers and student ministry.  You can slow down your ministry and give your youth the freedom to watch Jersey Shore marathons all summer.  Or you can plan a few extra events that give you the freedom to really get to know your students in ways you might not have thought possible.  Summers can should be the most magical part of the year for youth ministry.  Come back Friday and discover the joys of a youth group Happy Hour!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Introducing "The Youth Ministry Grapevine"

A few of you might have noticed a lot of changes going on at this particular web address lately.  I started this blog for Lent of 2010 to use it as the home of my devotional series, The 40 Day Adventure.  After that my plan was to use it as a home for posts about grace, the occasional rant, and anything else I felt didn't really fit on my primary blog- I'd Laugh- But All This Happened To Me!  That never really happened. It just sat here all lonely and unattended for a year until Lent of 2011, when I did "The Adventure" all over again.  I then changed it back to The Grace Spot for a couple of weeks while I prayed about what to do with this site.  I now have an answer- and I truly believe this change is going to stick!

In the late 1980's I was the editor of a newsletter several of us put together to help the part-time Youth Pastors and volunteers who were trying to do student ministry in tiny Quaker Meetings all over North Carolina.  We called the publication The Youth Ministry Grapevine.  It's been defunct for many years now, but I have decided to resurrect the name for this new incarnation of my #2 blog.  The stories I did this past week about youth ministry seemed to strike a chord with readers- in fact, more people read my What Does A Youth Pastor Do All Day? post than read all 40 of my Lenten devotionals- combined!  So maybe I'm on to something...

I've been telling stories about my own experiences from 28 years of youth ministry over at "I'd Laugh" for nearly 2 years now (with over 75,000 customer served!), and I would love for you to go read them.  This blog will be a little different.  I will not post every day. I am going to deal much more with concrete ideas and philosophies and less with stories and anecdotes- although I am sure there will be plenty of those as well.  I have been away from the professional ministry since 2007, so the ideas I share come from the vantage point of experience and a little separation.  We will just have to see where God takes us, won't we?

I would love to hear your thoughts on what would be helpful. In the meantime, I'm going to get started in the next few days with a series on Summer Ministries, offering my thoughts on why they are hugely important as well as some suggestions of programs you might want to try.  Stay tuned! 

And remember- this grapevine only works when we remember Jesus is the vine- we are merely branches!  Have a blessed day!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction #1

When you work for a church- and especially if you happen to serve the church as a Youth Pastor- the true stories of the things that happen around you are often stranger than any fiction you could write.  Today I want to share one such story with you.

I was serving a church in Florida in 2004 when I arranged to bring the great band Lost And Found to that church for the second time.  The were coming in early October, and there was great excitement around their visit.  The excitement was soon tempered by a series of hurricanes that caused us to cancel Sunday services twice in three weeks, thus putting quite a strain on church finances.  Being friends with the band, I explained our situation and they told me I could mail them a check in a week or two later.  Not only that, but because their travel costs had been less than expected, they wanted to knock $500 off of their fee.  It was an awesome gesture on their part.  They came, played a killer show, and everything went off without a hitch.  Until...

Several weeks later, after we had payed them, the Chairman of the church Finance Committee came to my office.  He had the contract for the concert and a copy of the check we had mailed them.  He seemed to be accusing me of wrong-doing, but I could not make any sense of his words.  It soon dawned on me that was because his words made no sense.  Because the check had been written for $500 less than the contract called for, he thought I had done something wrong.  I explained the situation to him, but he would hear none of it.  We called the band's management, and they explained the situation as well- and he would hear none of it.  He seemed to think that the band and I were in cahoots in some grand scheme- that had saved the church $500.  He ranted, raved, and moved our "discussion" to the Senior Pastor's office- where my boss proceeded to throw me under the bus and tell me I needed to make this right.  I was laughing.  I had saved the church $500, and now I needed to "make it right."  So over my protests- and the protests of the band- the church sent them a check for $500.  It was money they would have loved to have back a year later.  The next time I ran into to George and Michael they were like, "Dude!  What's up with that wacky church?"  But by then that story seemed pretty tame.  Life working for a church is often nothing short of bizarre.  Truth really is stranger than fiction!

Friday, May 20, 2011

10 (Very Specific!) Things I Miss About Student Ministry

I've been out of youth ministry for over 4 years now due to my own sin and selfishness, and not a day passes that I don't miss it.  As I wrote yesterday's post for this blog (What Does A Youth Pastor Do All Day?) my brain was flooded with memories.  So today I want to share with you 10 things that I miss.  These are not the general "I miss the kids" or "I miss seeing students come to know Jesus."  Of course I miss those things.  These are a bit more specific.  For those of you who know me, I hope these will remind you of some great times gone by.  For those of you who work with teenagers, I hope these will urge you to treasure the moments you share with them.  Here we go:
  1. I miss praying for a group, loading the vans, and cranking up the traditional trip starting tune- Bohemian Rhapsody! Oh yes we did!
  2. I miss sitting in the youth room an hour before anyone else arrived- praying for that night's program and the students who would make it special.  And I miss the overwhelming excitement I would feel at every church when someone new would come through the door!
  3. I miss sending out the famous Summer Packets that were always loaded with contests- and then waiting for the Youth Group Hotline to start ringing off the hook with excited students trying to win prizes- most of them worthless.
  4. I miss school holidays when my office would be so full of students that I couldn't get anything done- those were some of my best days.
  5. I miss those moments on trips- you know the ones- when all of you realize that you will never, ever forget what just happened to you.  They are etched forever on your brain.
  6. I miss sitting around the table with Youth Ministry Teams, brainstorming the wildest, craziest ideas we could come up with, and then running them through our Purpose Statement to see if they would help us accomplish our goals. I LOVED my volunteers!
  7. I miss doing Senior Roasts, those great events where everyone gets to tell stories and share their love with those who are about to graduate.  I miss telling those graduates just how much I love them.
  8. I miss standing in front of a youth group playing my guitar and listening to them sing, for fun and for worship.  I can still feel youth rooms shaking as we rocked out to Lahina.  If I close my eyes I can still hear groups split into parts and singing Prince of Peace & Sing Alleluia.  And I got to stand up front and soak it all in...
  9. I miss those moments at events and on trips when you manage to surprise your students in a big way, and they look at you with eyes that say "I can't believe you did this for us..."
  10. And finally, I miss the phone calls.  The ones in the middle of the night after something had gone terribly wrong.  The ones when a student had just been dumped.  The ones when they just heard an old song on the radio and they know I would know what it was.  The ones to tell me that they just made the team or just got a new car.  I miss being someone they knew they could count on.
I may need a tissue or two now...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Does A Youth Pastor Do All Day?

One of the most commonly asked questions of Youth Pastors is this- "What do you do all day?"  It is usually asked by the youth themselves, but occasionally by their parents, the congregation, or under rare and dangerous circumstances by the Senior Pastor.  The answer is much more complicated than most people might realize.  I submit to you today that Youth Pastors are usually the most under-appreciated staff member in our churches. In fact, for myself (and I suspect many other Youth Pastors who have worked in small to medium sized churches) the real answer to the question is...EVERYTHING!

To show you what I mean, let me give you a list of some of the things I was asked to do during any given month at the churches I served. My tasks included, but were not limited to:
  • Planning, directing and executing everything related to student ministry.  This usally takes no more than 80 hours a week...
  • Serving as the fill-in preacher on rare scheduled occasions and every time the Senior Pastor woke up sick at 6 AM Sunday morning.  No one can "wing it" quite like a Youth Pastor!
  • Driving the church van for the senior citizens groups and women's groups of the church.  Why me?  Because I had logged thousands of miles in those vans without incident- and because they knew I would say yes after the Senior Pastor turned them down.
  • Playing guitar & leading music during worship when the Contemporary Worship leader was sick or off interviewing at a church that was actually contemporary.
  • Teaching the staff how to use word processing programs, data bases and graphic software.  In later years, building and maintaining the church website.  I knew very little about computers, but "very little" made me the expert of those church staffs.
  • Make the wild, creative and envelope pushing suggestions that really rattled staff meetings- then smile as your suggestions were discarded.
  • Bringing creativity to worship.  I wrote and directed dramas, made videos, introduced new music and taught volunteers how to run Media Shout.  And then when they didn't show up, I ran Media Shout!
  • Do the "Children's Moment" during Sunday worship.  Even at churches where we had a CE Director or Children's Ministry Coordinator, somehow I got this job every week.
  • Set up the sound system anytime any one used the Fellowship Hall during the day, because no one else on staff knew how to do it.
  • Make suggestions about making the worship service more relevant for teenagers, only to be looked at like you just suggested actually singing the 3rd verse of a hymn...
  • Be the one person on staff who worked most every holiday and all summer long, because that's when students have the most available time.
Please understand- I am not complaining. I loved being in ministry for all those years, and I am sure my brothers and sisters in student ministry feel the same way.  But I also hope you understand that being a Youth Pastor is hard work.  They don't just sit around all day thinking of new ways to ruin the Jones Memorial Carpet or spend all of the church's money.  They deal with screwed-up families, broken relationships and one of the largest mission fields around.  They plan trips, go to ball games, concerts and dance recitals (you will feel their pain when you sit through a 3 hour recital to watch 1 student dance).  They study, pray and prepare to lead programs.  And many of them- in my experience, the VAST majority- do all of these things in a spirit of love and service, because they want so badly for people to know Jesus. 

Appreciate your Youth Pastors, my friends.  And if you happen to be one- then God bless you!  I know the challenges you face and the work load you carry.  I would love to be praying for you by name, so leave me a comment and I'll add you to my list.  And remember, God sees all that you do that is hidden to the eyes of humans, and your reward is still to come.  Keep the faith, my friends!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Grace Free Zones

I attended my therapy group this morning and had a chance to talk to my friend Jose. I have known Jose for almost 4 years now, and we have become pretty close.  Part of his life would seem fairly normal to you.  He lives with his 5 dogs. He loves to garden and grows most of his own vegetables, which is nice since he is a vegetarian.  He loves his mother and sisters, and speaks with them often even though they live far away.  And he is a good friend.

Relating to other parts of his life may be more difficult for you.  Jose has cancer of the liver.  He has been undergoing both chemo and radiation treatments for a couple of months now.  He has no appetite, has lost far too much weight, and is very weak.  He has no idea how long he has left to live.  But the cancer is not the only challenge Jose faces daily.  You see, Jose is a registered sex offender.  He is one year away from finishing his 7 years of probation.  And as we chatted this morning, our talk turned to the subject of GRACE.

As Jose lives what doctors tell him will be his last days, what he wants more than anything is to see him family again.  They live in New York and Puerto Rico, and his probation prohibits him from travel.  I have shared my faith with him on a number of occasions, paying particular emphasis to what GRACE really means.  He hears me, and he gets it.  What he finds difficult is believing in a God who offers unconditional love and second chances when he is surrounded by a society that offers only condemnation. Even after 7 years of earning a second chance it is not likely to be forthcoming.  The label "sex offender" is to this society what "leper" was to Jesus' day.  Untouchable.  Unforgivable.  And as I tell this broken man that God has already forgiven him, and that Jesus came to save the untouchable and the unfgivable with GRACE, he just can't believe it- because he hasn't experienced it.  He is not a particularly spiritual man, and the concept of GRACE does not exist in the criminal justice system.  Jose lives in a GRACE free zone.

It makes me wonder how many others there are in my life who can't understand God's GRACE because it has never been demonstrated by the people around them- including me.  We live in a society that is quick to accuse and quick to condemn, but exceedingly slow to forgive (unless you happen to be an athlete or a celebrity). Jose has repented and turned from the lifestyle of sin that ruined his life. I have also been among the least and the lost, and I praise God that I had family and friends who showed me GRACE.  What am I doing to pass God's love along to others who desperately need it? 

Please join me in praying for my friend Jose.  Pray for his relationship with Jesus, for his efforts to be allowed to go visit his family, and for his health.  Then consider this:  Who do you know who lives in a GRACE free zone?  Join with me in tearing down those walls...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rock the Boat

I grew up believing that "rocking the boat" was a bad thing.  Songs told us to be careful- "Rock the boat, don't rock the boat baby.  Rock the boat, don't tip the boat over"- or to "Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you're rocking the boat."  Teachers told us to learn to go with the flow so we wouldn't rock the metaphorical boat.  It was the best way to stay out of trouble and keep things under control.  Please keep your hands and legs inside the boat at all times.  And since the advice seemed to come from so many places, I accepted it as wisdom.

Jesus, on the other hand, was the greatest boat rocker who ever lived.  He rocked the boat by teaching the old men in the Temple when he was 12.  He rocked the boat by preaching and healing in ways no one had ever seen before. He rocked the boat by telling the Pharisees they were "a brood of vipers."  And he rocked the boat by proclaiming himself the Son of God.  As a matter of fact, Jesus rocked the boat everywhere he went simply by BEING there.  No custom, no leader, no law and no assumptions were safe when Jesus was around.  In fact, in the words of my friend Rick Bundschuh, Jesus didn't rock boats- He CAPSIZED them!

So how did his followers become so lame?  When did our focus change from rocking the world to be being "nice people?"  I don't know the answers, but I do know this- I spent nearly 30 years working for churches and spending way too much time trying not to upset anyone.  It seems one the main goals of many churches is to not rock the boat.  I don't work for churches any more, I just follow Jesus. What difference does that make?  I'll tell you.  If you want to ride in a boat with me now, wear a swim suit.  Because we are all going in!  If the boat is a rockin', then Jesus must be in it.  And that's where I want to be...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Believe It...Or Not!

Let me start by saying I love my church.  My family has been attending for over 4 years now, and we are there most every Sunday.  Having spent nearly 30 years working for churches, I am not always easy to please.  I often have my own thoughts on how things should be done in this huge, very successful church- and strangely enough they don't ask me!  But still, I love going to worship with my church family.  So I am not sure how to explain yesterday...

My family arrived and took our seats about 10 minutes before the service began (as usual) and began to discuss the previous evening's activities.  Our 15 year old son Will had spent the entire previous day auditioning for next year's band drumline (he made snares!) and then hanging out with his buddies.  We let him ride to supper with a "new" driver (against his mom's wishes).  He somehow stretched supper into a 3 hours event before calling, and he didn't answer his mom's calls.  Everything turned out fine, but there was leftover tension as we awaited the start of worship.  We discussed it for a short period of time, then turned our attention to Jesus. The conversation was never heated or contentious, but it was quite honest.  After the praise set we had the traditional time of meeting and greeting one another.  A woman we had never seen before was in front of of us, and had clearly overheard our conversation.  She turned to Will, shook his hand and said, "Even though your parents are hard on you, never forget they still love you."  He looked totally dumbfounded.  Strike 1 for yesterday's service.

Our pastor then began to preach.  He is in the midst of a series called Restart.  Yesterday's subject was "Restart your Heart."  I was expecting to hear about going deeper in my relationship with Jesus, or perhaps about ways to keep my faith fresh.  Instead, it was a sermon on tithing.  I love our pastor and usually find him to be a brilliant preacher.  But yesterday he fell into the trap of proof-texting and teaching church doctrine over the words of Jesus- even twisting the words of Jesus (in my opinion) on one occasion.  I felt like it was a bait and switch sermon.  Get us there with a great title, then hit us giving money to the church.  Strike 2.

At the conclusion of the service we were exiting when the lady in front of us grabbed my wife and encouraged her "not to give up. I know how difficult teenagers can be."  Which would have been nice, except our son could not be less difficult.  Strike 3.

I couldn't help but think as I walked to the car that if I had been a first time visitor on that day, I would probably never return to that church.  But I suppose churches are like the people who attend them.  They have off days.  They fall short.  They need grace - just like I do.  So next Sunday we will be there again, seeking to worship our God in spirit and in truth.  Jesus loves his church, and me, warts and all.  I need to do the same.

In the grip of Grace,

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter! He's Alive!

Enjoy today, fellow believers- for we are a resurrection people!  I hope you found this 40 Day Adventure to be inspirational.  Special thanks to Brook Teoli Phelps, Tracee Persiko, Jason Huffman, Jerry Godsey and Terry Smith who contributed guest posts this year.  Remember, you can always take sanctuary in the loving arms of our risen Savior.  Amen!