Five Tips For Christ Following College Freshmen

August is upon us which means another crop of incoming college freshman are about to descend upon their college campuses all over the country the next few weeks. The summer after graduating from high school before my freshman year of college may have been the best summer of my life (the summer after graduating from college right before starting my career and the summer I got married rank up there too). As the summer weeks wound down closer to the time I would be leaving for college I tried to recall all the things that people told me to expect when I went to college. For the most part I could remember all the encouragement, warnings and things I could expect for how college was going to be different than anything else I had experienced.

I appreciate that people tried to prepare me, but honestly nothing they said made that much of a difference because the information in advance paled in comparison to the actual experience. Simply put the information gave me an awareness of what to expect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t prepare me because it was just so different from High School. I remember thinking I won’t bother telling incoming college freshmen all the things I was told cause it just didn’t prepare me. Well now that I’m a youth pastor I feel a little obligated to give some advice or heads up. So here are a few things for you all to keep in mind before you go off to college.

“You’ll Have Way More Time On Your Hands”—This is the one thing that no one told me that I wish they had. If there is one thing that I failed at in my first few years of college it was time management. The best way I can describe college is that you have way more time than you know what to do with. This is especially important to note if you are a procrastinator because you’ll have more time to do just that. Interestingly enough a student I had coffee with this summer had the opposite problem, “I got so used to being in school seven hours a day, and doing homework until at least ten o’clock at night that the first few months of college I never left my room because I thought I should be putting as much time in as I did in High School even though the professors didn’t assign much in the way of homework.” First things first, is the key principle to practice regardless of which camp you fall into. When I finally figured that out, with the exception of the occasional project, I never did homework and studying past eight o’clock and had plenty of time to hang out with people without having it in the back of my mind that I still had work I needed to finish.

“Free T-shirts Are the Doorway to Debt”—most schools that I know of have an orientation at the beginning of the year where you can find out about all the different student organizations on campus. Inevitably there will be one booth set up with the offer of free t-shirts. Well free if you fill out a no obligation application first. More than likely this is a credit card company getting a bunch of broke unemployed college students to sign up for a credit card by baiting them with a free t. Personally I think it’s kind of unethical for credit card companies to prey on college students who don’t have a real job will have an enormous debt awaiting them upon graduation to get into even more debt before they have the means to handle. But they can do it because you all are technically adults so just no what you’re getting into before you sign up to get the free t.

“Find Christ-Centered Community Immediately”Over the years most of the students I know who maintain a vibrant growing faith in Christ through college are the ones who don’t waste time getting plugged into a on-campus Christian ministry. I know of very few colleges and universities that don’t have either a Campus Crusade or Inter-Varsity. Both ministries have a great reputation nationally. One recommendation I would give though is to go a step further and find a local church to get plugged into. Look for a local church where you can form healthy adult relationships and serve. You’re going to be with people your age and life stage all the time. The local church is a great place to branch out and go beyond homogeny. In all likelihood there’s bound to be a church near your campus that does a great job of recruiting families to ‘adopt’ a college student. During my college years the churches that I felt most connected to and a part of were not the ones that had a college ministry but the ones that I served and formed relationships with other adults.

“Drunkenness is a Moral Issue. Underage Drinking Is A Legal Issue”—So just don’t do it. Even if you have the discipline not to abuse alcohol and become drunk you are taking a risk with the law when you choose to drink as a minor. If you get caught your parents aren’t going to be around to smooth things over with the authorities, and you can actually be kicked out of school if it becomes a problem. [Sidenote–It goes without saying that I’m not condoning it, but girls if you choose to drink at a party I strongly advise you get your own drinks and literally eye ball your drink into the cup to assure that it hasn’t been tampered with]

Don’t Rush To Rush—The only Christians I have known that entered the Greek system and didn’t compromise their morals and lose their identity to the identity of the fraternity or sorority are those who approached it with the mindset of doing ministry; to be salt and light. I don’t want to come across as completely bashing the Greek system because they still do good things, but let’s just call it what it has largely become; a place where you can get easy acceptance and identity as long as you can pay the dues, and become a part of a community that for the most part is about partying, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity with the occasional service project thrown in. Sure they’ll have made connections that often prove to be advantageous when they enter the workforce, but at what cost? Not to mention that similar connections can be gained by getting to know at least one professor or administrator and a handful of fellow students in the department you’re majoring in. What was once a culture of developing and nurturing future leaders has become a culture of recklessness. I believe the culture of the Greek system can and should be redeemed but it will require people who enter it with a missional mindset (And if that is your aim I know some people I can refer you to for mentoring on how to do it and what to expect). So if you’re going to rush, rush for the right reasons.

In ClosingAs a youth pastor I want to give students the opportunity to take ownership of their faith. In a lot of ways the college years is the proving ground of whether or not they’ve done that. I can’t take too much credit for how they turn out because there are so many variables. That being said, no matter what ups and downs they encounter at college and university over and above all that stuff above I hope my students know where they can find me.

Seven Years Later: Thoughts on Longevity in Youth Ministry at One Place

Last month marked me being the Middle School Pastor at Church At Charlotte for seven years. I remember hearing a statistic, while studying youth ministry in undergrad, that the average length of tenure in one church for a local youth pastor is 18 months (which ironically is exactly the amount of time I was at the first church I was employed at). Moreover, the average length of time a pastor does youth ministry, regardless of the church is eight years. It’s kind of scary to think that by August I could be considered a youth ministry veteran. There are plenty of factors for why pastors leave youth ministry for “bigger” and “better” things, and plenty of articles written on the matter. Well I would like to give a couple of factors, reasons, and observations I have after doing youth ministry for seven years in one church, and why I hope to do many more right where I am. If you are a youth pastor, aspiring youth pastor, or questioning your calling into youth ministry I hope you find them enlightening and encouraging.

1. It’s Not All Fun and Games… My approach to student ministry is that I’m preparing adolescents for adulthood shaped by Christ. Developmentally as they are transitioning from abstract to concrete thinking they need to be pushed to help encourage that cognitive development. For the most part I approach teaching young teens like I would adults. I imagine this helps curb any desire to do ministry to adults, for feeling unchallenged by teaching in elementary ways.

2. Parents Are Your Greatest Advocates… Parents who have witnessed the positive affect you’ve had on the life of their children become your greatest advocates in the church, especially to young families, even after their children have moved on.

3. Trust and Respect is Key… The quickest way to sabotage the trust of parents and the respect of teens is to try and be one of the student’s friends. You can be their friend later, like when they graduate. In the meanwhile students want to feel safe with you. They feel safe when you look after their safety by having clearly explained boundaries, and steps of discipline that are executed when those boundaries are broken. Students respect you when you’re willing to tell them what they need to hear even if its not what they want to hear. They’re more likely to desire to connect with you as an adult if they respect you as a teen.

4. More Than Just A Pastor to Youth… My youth ministry professor Vince Beresford always used to say, “Your title may say youth pastor but you must know and operate as a pastor to youth and their family.” Becoming more intentional about being a pastor and resource to parents has resulted in some parents seeing me as the primary pastor to their family as a whole. Even by starting this blog and writing posts aimed specifically at parents has resulted in parents seeking my counsel in person more often than ever before.

5. Everybody Knows Your Name… Being intentional about getting involved with some of the other ministries not my own in the church has helped me feel like a part of the life of the church. I’ve taught at Children’s ministry’s VBS and Camp. I’ve been in a Men’s ministry small group. I’ve crashed the Omega’s dinner. I’ve even taken part in a Women’s ministry event. All of those things have given me an opportunity to get to know people who have no connection to the youth ministry.

6. Have Thick Skin… Sometimes being a youth pastor, especially of middle school, means you get treated or at least viewed as being junior varsity. Get over it, and do things in such a way that even if people naturally look down at teenagers they don’t look down on you.

7. The Best Part… The best part of having been at one place for seven years and counting is that all of my former students know where to find me. Moreover, the best part of doing middle school ministry is that even after students move on from your ministry they are still around. Your relationship with them changes, but they know they can still come to you cause you were interested in them at a time in their lives that they were amidst significant change and shrouded in awkwardness.

Conclude

I was fortunate enough to have a youth pastor that did youth ministry for 39 years, the last 21 at one place. The same place that I first started volunteering fourteen years ago. I’m sure his influence has played a large role in me being shaped in such a way that I’ve lasted this long. Hopefully I’ll get to see a few students follow in my footsteps too!

I Really Hate It When…

It’s a fairly harmless question, no ill will intended, and yet it raises the hair on the back of my neck. It’s sometimes an exercise in self-control because I’m tempted to answer sarcastically to make a point and likely offend the inquirer which would achieve nothing. But the fact of the matter is I’m not crazy, I’m not brave, and it doesn’t require courage to take MY group of junior high students out in public on an activity or event. Myself and the other adults that have committed to investing in the lives of young teens who are not our own are regularly affirmed for our bravery and courage to take 30-40 junior high students out to the beach, the mall, wherever, and asked afterwards if we survived. I’ve said it before from the pulpit but I’ll say it again here. We have a good group of kids.

Just this weekend we took 34 of them to the mall to do Christmas Shopping. No one “got lost”, was left behind, was a nuisance, or tempted us to purchase one of those kiddie leashes usually reserved for toddlers. Personally I had a group of 11 of them with me, and it was quite enjoyable and easy. They stayed together, they communicated with me if they were going into another store, they knew where to wait for the rest of the group if they finished in a store ahead of the rest of us. They didn’t complain about little stuff, they were patient with one another, they were polite and courteous of other shoppers, didn’t break anything including the hurricane simulator that they managed to stuff way too many persons into, and no one sneaked out of the movie we went to see as a group. I really didn’t even have to keep track of them because one of them took it upon himself to keep tabs on everyone else (in a way that didn’t get under their skin) and keep me updated on who was in what store in the vicinity that we stopped in.

This past weekend was not an anomaly of their normal behavior when we take them out in public. It is what we’ve come to expect, because that is what they’ve consistently demonstrated. As I said to one of the other adult leaders, “In nearly seven years of working with this group they’ve never given me a reason.” They’ve never given me a reason to be suspicious of them, so naturally I become a little annoyed and even irritated when people talk about them in a way that assumes that they are nothing, but trouble waiting to happen. I’ve been thinking about why I get irritated by inquiries of my survival, and affirmations of my bravery and courage, and here is what I’ve landed on.

1. I can only speak for my group. Common consensus is that Junior High age kids don’t have a long attention span, are combative of authority, are squirrelly and extremely difficult to manage. While I can’t speak for early adolescents universally I can speak for the group that I work with, and I would say that they are a joy to work with. Their attention span can be very long as long as whatever it is their being asked to sit for merits the attention. They thrive with well defined boundaries and feel safe when they know they can trust those in the positions of authority.

2. I don’t know what they’re like at home. But I know that they come from good homes. Whether it be two parent or one parent homes, the overwhelming majority of students I work with come from families with parents who take the role of parenting seriously and are not trying to be their child’s friend. Certainly all of them test their parents at home as is only natural for adolescents. However, many of them are mindful to represent their families well, and have been warned of consequences for not holding to a certain behavioral standard when under the authority of other adults they’ve been entrusted to. I’m thankful that across the board the parents within the local church body I am a part of make our life easier as youth leaders by holding their children to a high standard in the home. I’m grateful that though some students may push it at home with their parents they know how to act when their parents aren’t around, because of their parents.

3. They listen. They hear when you sell them short. This is something that I was guilty of when I was lamenting (on a previous trip) how a previous class spoiled us as adult leaders because there were a handful of them always intuitively stepping up and looking for ways to serve the group (which is uncommon amongst any age group). It got back to me that some of the students overheard this and were a little hurt because they interpreted it as me not being happy with them and not liking them as much. The innocent comments of survival bravery and courage are most often made in the presence of the students and I can’t help but consider the inference they must hear. I imagine that they hear that adults think they are nothing more than wild animals that are hazardous to your mental health. Early adolescents are understandably insecure enough with all the changes they are undergoing without it being inferred that to spend time with them means your very survival is at stake, and requires bravery. The last message any early adolescent needs to receive is that they aren’t normal.

So if you happen to ask me, even in jest, if I survived a youth event, or compliment me on my ‘bravery’ for giving my time to spend with Junior High age students and I hesitate or look puzzled for a moment you know why.

Connecting the Pieces of the Puzzle: A Cool Moment in Sunday School

So I just have to brag on my students for a moment. We’ve been going through the Old Testament in Sunday School since the beginning of September. The whole point being that they become more familiar with God’s story in the Bible and how it all connects. As children they heard different narratives from scripture in a random fashion that kept them totally disconnected from being the complete narrative that they are.

Yesterday we covered Genesis 29-31 where Jacob has given away 14 years of his life in service to Laban to have Rachel as his wife, even after being deceived into marrying the markedly less attractive sister Leah after the first seven years of work. I spent much time explaining to them the complicated web of relationships and personal brokenness (Jacob’s obsession with Rachel, Laban’s obsession with his wealth, Leah’s obsession with being loved, and Rachel’s obsession with herself), all coming to a climax in Leah and Rachel’s baby race, where even the servant of each wife is brought into the middle of quite literally. Of course the sisters spirited competition to give Jacob sons results in him having twelve sons the last of which and put an end to it all, because it was the first and only born from Rachel.

As I am saying all of that and saying, “And the twelve sons are the ones that eventually became…”, and before I could get the words out of my mouth the collective light bulb of many of the students about nearly exploded. In the blink of an eye they started to piece together little bits of those disconnected stories they had heard all their lives and things they had always just accepted or knew about started to make sense! Without me telling them they (1) realized that these were the twelve sons (of course Benjamin would be born much later) for whom the twelve tribes of Israel are named (2) that the last son and only one born from Rachel to that point was Joseph (3) and that is why Joseph was the favorite of his father Jacob and therefore why his brothers hated him so much. The same favoritism that Jacob showed Rachel was given to Joseph and indifference same indifference shown towards Leah and the servant girls he likely showed towards his other sons.

It made my day that 35 minutes into a lesson with it’s fair share of random tangents and technical difficulties they were tracking in a manner that clearly indicated that they were thinking, comprehending and concluding on their own.  It was really cool to see how impressed they were with themselves for putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Not in an arrogant way but in a way that says “This makes so much more sense. These seemingly random stories that I grew up with aren’t so random now that I have more information”. Not that it never happens, but it was just really cool to see it happen in such a vivid way.