I had the privilege of teaching at a retreat in Virginia this past weekend to about 500 high school students. It was an amazing weekend and through a bunch of conversations with students and leaders, it was clear God did some really powerful things.
Based on many of those conversations, I learned that the most significant factor in how God impacted people through my teaching was two personal stories I told about people in my life. One story involved attempted suicide. One story involved abortion. The focus of the stories wasn’t on these issues but more about the power of God’s love and grace to redeem them for something good.
After seeing and hearing the many students who responded with courage and humility to dig up some of their own junk to surrender to God and talk about with their leaders and small groups, I was reminded of something I’ve always believed very strongly in:
STUDENT MINISTRIES NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE AWKWARD.
When it comes to awkward and heavy topics like suicide, pornography, addiction, abortion, cutting, drugs, eating disorders, alcohol, homosexuality, abuse, sexual intercourse, oral sex, and everything else in between, student ministries need to be a place where it’s not only safe to talk about, but a place that readily and regularly brings them up. Obviously this is important to teach Biblical truth and wisdom about them, but also (and maybe more importantly) to make it a place of safety for students to engage in asking questions and having conversations about them. After all, students are hearing various perspectives of these subjects in their daily lives from school, friends, media, family, and pop-culture, why wouldn’t church be a place that talks about it just as much, if not more?
So, if you work in student ministries, never shy away from talking about the awkward. In fact, I’d say pursue these subjects with a great deal of intentionality! Use wisdom and discernment about when, where, and how they are discussed, but don’t use the potential awkwardness or heaviness of a topic as an excuse to avoid it.
And if you’re a student, be an ambassador in your ministry to help make it a place where you and your peers can discuss heavy topics without fear of judgement or being shut down. Talk to your small group leader and/or youth pastor and tell them you’d like to do a teaching series or workshop or something about an issue that your heart is passionate about. It could be anything such as struggling with thoughts of suicide, porography addiction, sexual activity in dating relationships, or anything else you’d like. And if they tell you that they aren’t the kind of student ministry that talks about that kind of stuff, find a new one to be a part of! Any student ministry that is avoiding the awkward, heavy topics is one that is avoiding something profoundly necessary to talk about in the lives of students. So find one that does.
And finally, if you’re a student and deal with any of the issues mentioned above (or one that I missed), my best advice to you would be to TALK ABOUT IT! Talk about it with someone! Find someone, a parent, your leader, your small group, your pastor, a teacher, someone in your life who loves you and loves Jesus that can listen and then speak truth and grace to you about whatever you’re going through. And not just someone who will tell you what you want to hear, but someone who is going to push you to take the bold steps to seek healing.
I look forward to the day when students can bring up something like self-harm or sexuality in church, knowing that they will be received with love, grace, and hope. And even further, they would find a place that desires the best for them and engages with them about their struggle with a heart for healing and freedom!
A few years ago, I was part of a teaching series for junior high students called “Call of Duty.”
Obviously a ton of middle school students play it (and could snipe me in less than a second while jumping off a water tower from 7 miles away and pulling the pin on six grenades) so our team thought it’d be a fun way to explore our “call” to the basics of Christian disciplines. I grew up with things like reading our Bible or having Christian community being a natural part of my life, but many students might not know the truth or power behind them. So we wanted to talk about them.
One of the main disciplines that I had really sensed students wanted to learn about, was prayer.
I’d been noticing how it seemed like a lot of students were really uncomfortable with praying. Even students who go to a Christian school or have Christian families had trouble praying. When I would ask them in small group, they would awkwardly and hesitantly try and form a prayer with the right “spiritual” words they thought they were supposed to say. Or if I met one of them for lunch and asked them to pray before we ate, they would nervously laugh and ask me if I could instead. Or when asking students if they every prayed on their own, they wouldn’t know how to respond.
I began to see that a lot of students didn’t understood what prayer actually was. Prayer is a conversation with God, but I think students looked at it more of a churchy thing with churchy words that only adults and leaders were good at.
So for the kick-off night of “Call of Duty” I had the privilege of teaching about prayer.
I taught that prayer means ‘to ask’, that it is a conversation between us a God, and that prayer is a privilege (not a chore). I also taught about the idea of praying constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) by doing what I called ‘texting’ God at any moment with whatever you want to tell Him or ask Him. I taught that you don’t have to close your eyes or fold your hands to pray since Jesus didn’t when He prayed (John 11:41-44). And I taught about listening prayer and how simply talking to God is only half of what prayer is; that God speaks to us.
And to end the night, I wanted to give students a real practical ‘how-to’ when it came to prayer. So, I decided to take The Lord’s Prayer and try to make a practical prayer tool for students. Here’s what I came up with:
When we pray, we begin by thanking God for something good in our life (“Hallowed be Your name), since everything that is good comes from God (James 1:17).
Then we can ask God for some thing(s) we need (not want) in our life (“Give us this day our daily bread”).
After that, we need to pray for forgiveness and receive God’s grace (“Forgive us our sins”).
Then, we have the opportunity to pray for someone in our life or world (“As we forgive those who have sinned against us”).
And then finally, we conclude our prayer by praising God and telling Him something awesome about Himself (“Your Kingdom come, Your will be done”).
I realize it’s not a perfect copy of The Lord’s Prayer but I wanted to make it as clear and simple as possible.
To help with that, I came up with an acronym:
T – Thanks
A – Ask
F – Forgiveness
F – For _____
Y – You are…
Yes, they’re cheesy, but they’re also helpful. The night I taught this, we printed the acronym up on small cards and taped a piece of Laffy Taffy to the back of them so students could keep (or eat) it to remind themselves how to pray.
After I wrote my teaching, something totally unexpected happened to me: I began using TAFFY to pray! I wrote this whole thing for a group of middle schoolers but God totally challenged me with it in my own prayer life! I later gave the same teaching to high shoolers and encouraged them by telling my own story of how God used this hokey acronym to help me connect to Him more.
The spiritual discipline of prayer has never come real easy for me. Reading the Bible is fun, having good community I’ve always known is important and been intentional about, and worship is something I’ve experience different seasons of passion for. But prayer has always been really difficult for some reason.
However, by using TAFFFY, it gave me a jumping off point to stay disciplined in my prayer when I needed it and further pursue connecting with God the more I conversed with Him.
I realize it’s not perfect (I don’t have anything about ‘lead us not into temptation’ or ‘protect us from the evil one’ or about listening prayer) but the Lord was so faithful by surprising me with a fresh, fun way for me to stay disciplined in my prayer.
And yes, I ate the Laffy Taffy. And by “the”, I mean “four…teen”
To listen to my full teaching on the TAFFY prayer and download your free taffy card (made exclusively by Lindsay Letters!), click HERE!!!
Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is stupid. He’s actually the exact opposite. I’m sure he’s a good person and I enjoy Jessie Eisenberg and Facebook (except the dumb requests I get 7 times an hour to play Candy Crush or “like” that page on defending the rights of dandelions).
The issue (for me) with Mark Zuckerberg’s story is that he became wildly successful at a very young age. And he’s not the only person to accomplish major success during their teen years or 20’s. People like Jennifer Lawrence, Lucy Li, Jaden Smith, Justin Bieber, Francisco Molinari, Taylor Swift, Tiger Woods, Miley Cyrus, the Olson Twins, the guys who sold YouTube, those random homeschooled kids who graduate college when they’re 12, or Macaulay Culkin in Richie Rich all come to mind as well.
There are a so many young men and women around the world who strike it rich or famous (or both) during puberty or before they can legally drink. And it’s great! Our culture (appropriately) celebrates these people and their accomplishments by further expanding the attention put on them simply because of what they’ve done for their age.
The problem I see (and have experienced) with this, is that it puts a subconscious pressure on me to think I have to be wildly successful when I’m young and if/when I don’t, I’ve failed.
And the Christian world isn’t immune to this either. I remember being at a Catalyst conference in Atlanta the first time Steven Furtick spoke and the way he was introduced was mostly focused on how remarkably gifted he was for such a young age. Of course, that ended up being true and his teaching was amazing, but in the back of my head there was a seed planted that continued to feed this presumption that the longer it took me to become “successful” (even in a Christian, ministry context), the worse I was doing.
I think the world we live in of 24 year old millionaires and 13 year old doctors has put an unrealistic and unhealthy subconscious expectation on our generation of what success is meant to look like.
When it comes to being a student pastor, there’s always the attraction to somehow (as soon as possible) reach the level of recognition that Craig Groeschell or John Ortberg has. (side note: I’m sure the level of fame men and women like them have attained comes with a massive list of difficulties that need to be wisely navigated through…so keep in mind the always true phrases: “Be Careful What You Wish For” and “The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side”) But I wonder if this self-expectation is actually hurting our heart for ministry.
The more we long for fame, the more we miss the people right in front of us. The more we hope for riches, the more we miss the blessings right in front of us. The more we strive for worldly or even ministry success, the more we fail the day-t0-day ministry that’s been given to us.
What if God is most proud of all the student pastors out there who faithfully pour into the 5 students that come each week, not annoyed they haven’t grown to above the 10% average attendance of their church? I realize there’s something to be said for ministry growth and not being okay with a dying or unhealthy ministry. I definitely think it’s important to always be thinking about how to engage people and students who aren’t and reach the lost. But the heart of a person to genuinely minister to a few instead of be distracted by the lack of many is something I believe God truly loves.
For the tens of thousands of student pastors who have been blessed with leading a ministry of five or ten or 100 students, I believe their treasure in heaven is directly proportionate to their heart for those students, not necessarily the size of their group. I don’t think Jesus is going to be as concerned with numbers as much as He’s concerned with our hearts.
I remember some of my most joy-filled years of doing ministry was when I was leading a middle school group of about 150 students. I truly loved those students and my heart was so passionate about how to lead them more towards God. But the minute I would start thinking about my own personal gain or success, my discontent started edging out my heart for what God wanted to do right in front of me.
And the truth is that ministry leaders who experience massive success at the age of 25 is great but that’s not the expectation, that’s the exception. God isn’t expecting a global Church filled with Christian Justin Biebers (what a terrifying thought). In fact, I think He is more proud of the student pastor who humbly and passionately and wisely leads their group of 25 students every Wednesday night.
I’ve heard and seen people like Jon Acuff, Bob Buford and Robert Lewis talk about a super encouraging concept in regards to this as they’ve broken down the different stages of life. According to them:
Our 20’s are Learning
Our 30’s are Editing
Our 40’s are Mastering
Our 50’s are Harvesting
And our 60’s Guiding
I love this. It is such a freeing concept. According to this, the expectation to achieve “success” doesn’t really come until we’re in our 40’s! That means that it’s okay if we fail in our 20’s! It’s okay if we miss the mark or have to readjust or recalibrate in our 20’s or even 30’s! We have about half our life to get to a place where we’re finally hitting our stride. Up until that point, we’re still in the lab figuring it out!
So instead of feeling pressure to do or be something by a certain age or time, let’s feel the appropriate burden of whatever God has put right in front of us. If you’re leading a ministry of 1000 students, do it to the best of your ability and continue to grow and challenge yourself. if you’re leading a small group of 3 students, be the best gosh-darn leader of those students that you possibly can be. You might not make the cover of Relevant magazine, but someday I believe you’ll hear how proud God is of you, directly from Him.
All youth pastors love “Cry Night.”
Even if we don’t want to admit it because it feels (and probably is) a little selfish, we love it. I know I did.
In case you don’t know what “Cry Night” is, let me explain: “Cry Night” is the night (usually Saturday on a weekend retreat and Thursday or Friday on a week-long camp) when students’ emotions are most primed to respond to God’s Spirit moving. It’s the night when students surrender their past, release their sin, cross the line of faith, raise their hands in worship, hug each other, seek prayer from their leader, stand arm-in-arm while swaying during worship, and yes, cry.
The stories the next morning usually start with: “There wasn’t a dry eye in my group.” or “All my guys gathered around and prayed for Bobby who was crying.” or “My girls kept saying they hadn’t cried that long in a while.”
And it’s great! I’m not saying these kind of nights or experiences are bad or inauthentic. It’s absolutely fantastic to watch God move and watch students experience a new level of freedom and connection to Him and the people around them. In fact, it’s one of the best things I ever experienced as a youth pastor.
However, the trap I found myself falling into is the discouragement, doubt, and confusion when Cry Night didn’t happen.
Did I do something wrong?
Did I not do something I should have?
Was my teaching not good enough?
Should we have changed that one worship song?
Did I fail the students somehow?
The thesis of my book “Sow What?” (NOW FREE!!!) is based on some significant frustration I experienced in leading student ministry. While it was so wonderful to have a job thinking creatively about how to connect students to God, what I found again and again was that no matter how much I poured into students, whether through a well thought-out teaching or over the course of a season of discipling them, so frequently, I didn’t see anything change. They still talked the same, acted the same, and weren’t any more passionate about their relationship with God. They still disrespected their parents, dating girls they shouldn’t, and stood like a statue during worship.
I kept thinking I was doing something wrong or not doing enough. I got mad at God, mad at myself, discouraged, frustrated, and demotivated over and over again. I definitely saw God work and do some amazing transformation in some students, but it felt like the vast majority of students (and especially the ones I was more directly pouring into) weren’t making any progress whatsoever.
After years of this, I experienced God speaking and teaching me something: Student Ministries can be a fruitless ministry.
Or maybe a better way to say it would be: Student Ministries is a seed-planting ministry.
In “The Parable of the Sower”, Jesus uses an illustration indicates that only 25% of the seeds sown might actually take root and produce fruit. That’s a pretty terrible percentage!
25% on a test, you fail!
25% of your daily nutrition, you’re sick!
25% of your free-throws, you’re Dwight Howard!
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sow seeds. It just means we might not see their fruit.
And this is what I believe student ministries is: A time to sow seeds that God will then use to bear fruit, more often than not, at a later time.
And time and time again, as I’ve talked with wiser and more experienced student ministers, they talk about getting an email or phone call or running into a former student who thanked them for a teaching or conversation or text or prayer that significantly encouraged them from years before. Most of the time, the youth pastor didn’t even remember it or think anything of it at that time, but God used it to plant a seed that He would then later bear fruit with once the student was in college, their 20’s, or even later.
It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.– 1 Corinthians 3:7
Because youth pastors have an authentic heart to impact students, and become sometimes the students they’re ministering to don’t bear fruit right away, many youth pastors find themselves striving for some sign of their hard work making a difference. Something..anything that can be seen as a positive result of their labor!
With great intentions and pure motives, I’ve seen and experienced myself longing for some sign of God doing SOMETHING in students’ lives, especially in a way that affirms the time and energy I’ve poured out to make that happen.
And without realizing it, I began to find this encouragement at “Cry Night.” Here was a tangible, obvious indication of God impacting students that my tired heart soaked up like a sponge.
And that’s great!…until there isn’t a Cry Night.
I once heard Craig Groeschel, talking about ministry attendance, say: Don’t blame yourself for the decline, because if you blame yourself for the decline you may be tempted one day to take credit for the increase.
As a youth pastor, I realized I need to be careful to not blame myself for an apparent lack of growth in students’ lives, because then I might be tempted to take credit for those times when they do grow. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pour our and minister and pastor and strive with everything I can to connect students to God, but my job isn’t to force an outcome. My job is to plant the seed and then pray and trust God to accomplish what I cannot: transformation.
Cry-Night’s and other obvious signs of students growing are fantastic, but when they don’t happen, be encouraged. Knowing that you are sowing the seeds that God will then cultivate and use for His glory and the blessing of those students.
Here’s a brief update:
Lindsay, Eva, and I are getting settled in Nashville and liking it a lot so far! It’s a beautiful area with a lot of really fun stuff to do. Some great restaurants and really close to downtown. The weather is nice because it’s not as hot as Phoenix and the winter won’t be as harsh as northern Illinois, so hopefully it’s the best of both worlds! However, we’re not fans of the bugs or humidity so I’m hoping my sweat can double as some sort of natural insect repellant.
I’m beginning to work towards publishing a couple writing projects including a book and a middle school spiritual gifts experience. I’m also actively pursuing more opportunities to speak! I’m looking to schedule as many student teaching opportunities during this fall and winter as I can and would love to ask for your help!
I’m looking to schedule teaching opportunities at:
▪ Student Weekend Retreats
▪ Student Camps
▪ Student Events
▪ College Ministries
▪ Youth Groups
▪ Dog Shows (as long as John O’Hurley is there)
I was blessed to have a super fun and super packed summer as I had chances to speak to students all across the country from California to Maryland and Texas to Wisconsin. Here are a few things people said about my time there:
“Dugan is truly one of the most creative, gifted communicators I have ever witnessed! His humor, wit, and charisma compel you to want to hang on to his every word. He is an incredible collaborator, and he has the unique ability to take lots of ideas and succinctly bring a powerful, unified message to life. It’s so very rare to see someone with the combination of God-given talents that Dugan possesses, but I am grateful and inspired to see the enormous difference he’s making in the Kingdom…he’s one of a kind.” – Angela Wade Simpson (Project: Home, 2014)
“Dugan is great at what he does…captivates the audience. He did a great job keeping the attention of the students through the use of his jokes and illustrations. He was also able to present the topic at hand with depth and understanding. Students have already requested for him to speak again next year.” – Amy Smith (Adventure Camp, 2014)
“He’s a brave, insightful speaker, full of creativity, keeping us laughing so we understand him on a personal, real level and making us listen when it truly counts. He’s a real joy for both adults and students alike!” – Ivy Castle (Project: Home, 2014)
“Dugan was able to masterfully weave our theme and passages that we wanted with his own personal stories and creative sermons to produce a relevant and authentic message for our students.”– Jason Fullen (Reality Week, 2014)
“We have wanted Dugan to be our main speaker for the past two years for our summer camp. He is a great story-teller, knows how to grab student’s attention and describe to them Christ’s great love for us. He is funny, and engages with students both when speaking and during camp time. Tons of our students ask for him back each year, and many of them have personal stories of how Dugan talked to them, or how something he said really resonated with them. He was involved in pre-service meetings, and had creative ideas to help our team plan. He followed time sensitive agendas so our team could get everything done and planned for our camp!” – Taylor Parra (Reality week, 2014)
So, if you are looking for a speaker or if you know of someone who is, please get in touch with me! I’d love to come hang out with and teach your students!
I’m even offering a 25% discount for any contract during Fall of 2014 and Winter of 2015, so spread the word.
Thank you so much and let me know if you have any questions! Otherwise let me know when I can come serve your ministry!
Also don’t forget to get your copy of and spread the word about a free digital copy of my book HERE!