Tips for Having “The Talk” With Your Students

Tips for Talking About Sex with Students

This Fall, our student ministry tackled the “gods at war” series from Kyle Idleman. The series identifies false gods that war for our affection. From the moment we chose the series, I circled the date on my calendar when I would be teaching on the “gods of love, sex, and romance.”

Every youth minister knows the sweaty palms and the lump in the throat that come along with speaking to students about sex and purity. As youth ministers who care deeply for students, we know that this topic is of the utmost importance. We know that the average age a student sees pornography for the first time is around 11. We know that by the time a student graduates, 92% of the guys and 63% of the girls will have viewed pornographic images. And, frankly, that is only one of the battlefronts as students are also dealing with questions about their sexuality and their gender and being pressured from all sides to be sexually active.

As I thought more and more about sharing with students about this difficult topic, I thought it might be beneficial to communicate some lessons I have learned along the way about giving “The talk” to your students. While some of these lessons were learned the hard way, I hope that they are all beneficial as you approach this topic with your students.

Everything in moderation 
It seems some youth ministers talk about sex almost every week. Honestly, with students facing this topic at every turn, speaking about sex at every youth meeting is a real temptation. But remember, sexual sin is just a symptom of the larger disease. I would encourage you to spend most of your teaching opportunities focusing on the bigger picture of being a disciple and a lifelong follower of Christ. Speaking about sex every week is too one-dimensional and misses the point.

Sound the alarm
I am convinced that one of the best things you can possibly do prior to having “the talk” in youth group is to communicate the details with parents and your leaders. Whether you send a letter in the mail, communicate in a weekly email blast, send a text message, or all of the above, you need to give parents and leaders a heads up. Not only does this communication help keep everyone on the same page, it also helps parents to prepare mentally for the conversation that will most likely happen after youth group. I invited our elders to sit in on our youth group that evening so that there would be no question about what I had said or the tone in which I said it. Communicate like crazy. You will be happy that you did.

Be bold
Once you have set the stage by communicating with parents and leaders and you have prepped well, it is time to be bold. The world is screaming from every direction about sex and romance, and it is high time that the church speaks with holy boldness on the subject. Don’t be afraid to attack certain angles of this topic head on. Talk with your students directly about pornography, sexual promiscuity, movies, television, cohabitation, and whatever else you feel God leading you toward. You know your students and the pressures they are facing in their context. Don’t pull any punches.

Avoid slang 
One of the mistakes I made the first few times I spoke on sex with my group was utilizing slang terms. Every student has a different level of understanding about sex, so using slang terms ended up causing more difficulty than I anticipated. Students spent time during my lesson whispering back and forth trying to figure out what that term I just used meant. For some, the use of slang terms created more curiosity and confusion. I’m not suggesting you give a doctoral thesis and only use medical terminology, but stick to the basics so that your students are sure to understand and can continue to track with you instead of laughing about the term you just used. Parents will also appreciate the deliberate avoidance of slang terms so that they don’t have to define crazy terms to their student after youth group.

Trust the Truth
God’s Word has lots to say on the topic of sex and purity. Students are hearing the world’s view on sexuality from magazines, movies, television, and even their friends in the locker room. But God is the Creator, and He is the one who created us as sexual beings. Trust in His Word, and confidently share that truth with your students. Many times, the Bible will stand in stark contrast to the world on this topic, but you can trust in it and communicate it without fear. Be ready to answer questions after youth group, but know that the Bible is trustworthy.  In turn, you should deliver its Truth confidently.

Give grace
I can’t tell you how many lessons on sexual purity I’ve heard that have been very heavy-handed, guilt-ridden, and condemning in nature.  Honestly, I’ve been guilty of delivering a few of these in the past.  But what I realized is that students who are struggling with lust, pornography, and sexual sin are already dealing with the weight of guilt and shame.  They certainly don’t need me to add to their guilt by bashing them over the head with the Word.  I fully believe that it is possible to encourage students to sexual purity while extending the incredible and glorious grace of Jesus.  When I am confronted in my sin, I prefer it to be filled with grace. So, I have started approaching this subject with my students the same way.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way about having the purity talk with my students.  I’d love to hear what has worked for you as well.  Comment below so we can dialogue about this important subject.

Embracing the New Normal

taking attendance in youth ministry

Carey Nieuwhof is a name many of you might recognize. If you don’t recognize his name, check out his new leadership podcast, it’s great! In his first episode, Andy Stanley makes a statement that kind of shook my existing paradigm as it relates to student ministry.

“A regular church attender is someone who goes to church about 12 times a year, not every week…as we looked at our children’s attendance patterns, the truth is that people, a regular attender, somebody that says, ‘Oh that’s my church, I love Andy or I love Carey or I love my church,” they’re going to go 12-15 times a year and consider themselves ‘churched.’  …they haven’t left.”

TWELVE TIMES? Growing up, my mom was on staff at a major church. From my perspective as a kid, the thought that we would even miss 12 Sundays a year was foreign, much less only attend 12 Sundays a year. So whether or not that statistic plays out to be true in your context, from a general point of view, there is a notable culture shift among church attendance. I would argue that there is a new normal. (Keep in mind, “new” is relative. For some contexts, this normal may have existed for years and years, and in other contexts, it may not be there at all).

Let’s assume, for a second, that this is the case and that it plays out to be true for students, as well. How does that impact how we cast vision for our students? How does that impact processes for pastoral care? How does that impact how we might view different circles of “core” vs. fringe? How does that impact how we script our series and our small group/Sunday school curriculum? We could talk for decades about how to increase involvement to an “acceptable level”, whatever that is…but let’s resist that temptation.

Instead of trying to FIX the problem, how can we do better at working within the framework we’re given? How can we be better leaders, pastors, and shepherds under the assumption that this statistic, to some degree, is true?

 

I don’t have all the answers…but I can think of plenty of questions.

PASTORAL CARE. When a tragedy happens in my town, my tendency is to use our D Group ministry structure as a conduit for pastoral care: visiting groups, checking in with group leaders, and meeting with students that were directly effected. If a student only attends 12x a year but considers you their pastor, seeing no reason why you would consider them a “regular visitor,” how are we shepherding students we only see once a month?

FOLLOW UP. When a core student, who may miss one meeting a month, misses for a couple weeks, there is cause to follow up. But if Jim only comes once a month to his home youth group, what’s the best way to follow up? The same way you’d approach a student there every week, or more like a student who has come with a friend a couple times?

SERIES DEVELOPMENT. I’m writing this 3 and a half hours before preaching the first message in a series on times when God feels silent. I feel like this series will hit home with many of our students who struggle with connecting with God. But if Jim comes 1 time every 4 weeks, he may not know the series is happening until it’s over. Do we have ways our students can stay plugged in and fed if they’re not there? Do we drag out series? Do we need to over-communicate when a series approaches that we think is particularly honed into where our students are?

Those are my first thoughts as I process the incredible implications should this statement be true, but I would love to hear how this perception or knowledge impacts the way you do student ministry, and if you think it plays out in your context.

Talking Points for Pretty Little Liars

I know my students watch “Pretty Little Liars.”

Here’s a secret: I do too.

I don’t WANT them to watch it. I think it’s too mature in content for them.  I think parts of the show are trash and it irritates me, yet I watch it.  I don’t advertise that I do it, but I do it.

But what happens when a student tells me that they love that show?  Personally, I’m not going to say, “OMG I DO TOO” because I don’t want to advocate it.  I’m not going to say, “That show is trash. Dump it” because that shames them and they’re just going to do it in secret.

So why not have a redemptive conversation about it?

The Premise

Pretty Little Liars is a show about 4 teenage girls whose 5th best friend went missing. Since a body that was assumed to be that friend was found, they’ve been receiving mysterious text messages from “A.”  These messages use all of the secrets they told their missing friend to blackmail them to do things for A.  Meanwhile, the Liars have many relationships, all of which are broken or inappropriate.  One is dating her teacher, one a female, one the town freak (the only guy she dated who was actually of legal age), and the last a flaky sketchy guy.  The show glorifies all of their relationships, and draws viewers in. The Liars also have a ridiculous amount of money, crazy fashion, and participate in underage drinking.

You probably are like, “Heather, why do you watch this smut?” Well, because the story-line itself is fascinating. There are many twists and turns that keep viewers like me in.  I also will defend myself by saying that I am very picky about what I watch, compared to your average Millennial. I’m very sensitized towards unnecessary crudeness, and I don’t think PLL crosses that line.

Talking Points

What do you like most about the show?
What do you not like about the show?
Have you ever told someone a secret, and then they used that secret against you?  How did that make you feel?  Have you ever done that to someone else?  How do you think that made them feel?
Can you relate to any of the lies they’ve told?
What does the show teach us about the lies that we tell?  They come up eventually, and we can’t hide from them forever.
Are their relationships healthy or toxic?  Why?
Which character can you relate to the most? Honestly, it’s hard to relate to them, because their stories are so wild.
How do the Liars treat each other?  Are they quick to blackmail each other, or do they stand by each other no matter what?
What does the show teach us about friendship?
How realistic is this plot?
What would you do if someone was bullying or blackmailing you through text messages?  Have you ever experienced this?

The best thing to do when talking through this is to not condemn or shame students for their answers. Ask them questions and help them work through it.  Ask questions in a way that is provocative enough to engage thoughts, and leaves some room for grace.

Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church?

It seems about this time every year, I begin to see a lot of blog posts about how Youth Ministry is killing the church, how Youth Ministry is fundamentally flawed, and how students are leaving the church in record numbers.  Youth Ministry is always the scapegoat in this conversation, the sacrificial lamb to blame for all of the woes plaguing the church.

I will be frank and tell you that this trend of blaming Youth Ministry for the mass exodus of young people from the faith is honking me off.  While I see the trend, and am disheartened whenever I see one of my former students straying from the faith, I am not convinced that Youth Ministry is the root cause for the decline.  I’d like to offer some rebuttals to the idea that Youth Ministry is the root of all evil, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Here are some questions I think need to be asked.

1.  What would the statistics be WITHOUT Youth Ministry?

While studies like Sticky Faith and Barna continue to show the alarming trend of students leaving the church, I wonder if those numbers would be exponentially worse without Youth Ministry in the mix.  If you follow the same logic many do when it comes to Youth Ministry, you could have some interesting conclusions.  For instance, people are dying of obesity-related illnesses in large quantities.  Clearly, doctors are killing America.  We should get rid of doctors and start over.  You see the absurdity of such logic, as it doesn’t really get to the root cause of the issue at hand.  I argue that Youth Ministry is not the root cause of students leaving the church.  It may simply be a symptom of the greater disease.  I contend there are other factors.

2.  What about the culture around us?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t 1950 anymore.  Wally and the Beav are long gone.  Shows like Dick Van Dyke and My Three Sons have been replaced with the Real Housewives and Modern Family.  But the list of cultural changes isn’t limited to our entertainment.  Absentee fathers, single parenting, gay marriage, and a plethora of other “hot button issues” are waging war on our students.  Many well-respected pastors, researchers, and social commentators have even called this a “post-Christian society.”  Are we so naive to think that these other factors don’t contribute to the droves of students leaving our churches?

We aren’t living in an age where families just “attend church together” every Sunday as part of their normal family tradition.  There isn’t a standard expectation in our society to attend church.  Many of the students in our ministry at Hazelwood come to church without their parents.  A number of them have no positive spiritual influence to speak of outside of youth group.  To assume that Youth Ministry is somehow the reason these students don’t “stick with it” is to miss a lot of other contributing factors altogether.

3.  What about all the success stories?

I’ve seen too many amazing spiritual transformations in Youth Ministry to believe it is beyond repair or without merit.  Each year, we watch about 15-20 students give their lives to Christ and follow Him in Christian baptism.  Many of these students, as I mentioned earlier, have no real spiritual connection outside of our Youth Ministry.  I’ve seen students answer the call of God and follow Him into full-time ministry.  Many students from our church are currently serving in other ministries around the country and even around the world.  Through our ministry, students have had opportunities to serve on mission fields in various states, countries, and places of need.  In Youth Ministry, students meet every week to encourage, pray for, and laugh with one another in Christian community.  How can we throw out the baby with the bath water here?

Five years ago, a young lady went on a trip with us for the first time.  She met Jesus there, and her life was never the same.  I watched her pursue Christ faithfully despite adverse conditions spiritually in her home, and financial difficulty at every turn.  Our Youth Ministry often helped pay for her registrations so that she could continue to go with us and grow in Christ.  This past year, she came into my office with a smile on her face.  She had a job her senior year, and had saved her money so she could pay for her own way on our Adventure Trip.  She walked into my office, and gave me THREE stacks of cash.  The first was for her trip.  The second was for her sibling.  And the third was to pay for another student who couldn’t afford to go.  Youth Ministry isn’t completely broken.

4.  Isn’t there another solution?

One of my biggest complaints about most of the “Youth Ministry Stinks” articles is that they rarely offer solutions.  While I don’t think Youth Ministry is to blame for our loss of students entirely, I do think we need to make strides forward, and take Youth Ministry to the next level.  This is where I appreciate solutions-based research like Sticky Faith.  It gives tangible, proven ideas that I can implement in my ministry in the hopes of hanging on to more students in the future.

By connecting our students to the larger body, giving students opportunities to wrestle with questions of faith, and more effectively partnering with parents in ministry, we can make Youth Ministry even more productive in the future, and hopefully watch more students remain faithful after high school.

Is Youth Ministry responsible for the exodus of students from the church?  I’m not so sure.  Can it be better and more effective?  Absolutely.  And that, my friends, is something I think we can ALL agree on.  So let’s get out there and change the world…one student at a time.

How to Respond to Social Media Criticism Towards Your Ministry

For the past three months, I have been working at the headquarters of Youth for Christ as their Social Media Specialist to learn how to better engage people with social media and blogging at a local and national level as we work to improve engaging with teenagers and the whole community to share the Gospel alongside the church. One of the first missions I had for the position is to put together an all-encompassing social media and blogging policy for the organization that will not only protect the students and families we minister to, but also help the staff people do good ministry and protect themselves as well.

Let’s be honest, if we are serving a God who loves teenagers unconditionally, are willing to say the hard things to parents and senior pastors, or push the youth to do more with their lives than texting and sexting, we are going to rub people the wrong way. We will post events on Facebook, photos from the latest camp trip, a video blog entry on Twitter sharing the upcoming sermon, and people are going to leave mean responses. So instead of deciding to react to how to each individual situation, lets figure out what the steps should be when it is not a crisis situation.

Let me quickly note that there is a difference here between someone being rude, mean, or negative to your ministry on your social media and blogging comments and people directing their words to specific people in your ministry, be it teenagers, parents, or volunteers. The policy below is coupled with a cyberbullying policy that states an immediate removal of posts directed at students that include sexual harassment, verbal attacks, or threats of any kind, mandated reporting when necessary, and direct conversations with the parties involved over the phone or in person.

The following entry into the policy became as follows:

Do Not Delete Comments
A comment, whether positive or negative towards the ministry is still something that can be of value. If it is negative towards the ministry and not vulgar, immediately respond with an apology of the situation (note that we are not admitting guilt here as clarification needs to be made), let them know that you will contact them directly through a private communication through Facebook message, Twitter direct message, or the like, and then immediately contact them. If the situation warrants, discuss what has happened with your supervisor and follow their guidance on the situation.

Go Counter-Intuitive And Win!

This kind of a response is something that is counter to the immediate reaction to the situation. I feel in my heart that they dislike me, that others will be swayed, and I have to stop it now. I worry that my faith is in need of protecting and I have to respond bold, if irrationally. The person just does not get it and I need to fix their line of thinking right now.

But what are you missing out by responding this way? With a thoughtful and quick response, you are showing everyone else that reads this comment that you are listening and care about the person. You show that in the midst of controversy and crisis, you want to dialogue more and get it worked out right. A teenager could read this and think, “Maybe, just maybe, my even scarier problem that I have not told anyone could be heard and not judged by my youth worker.”

I call that a win.

If you find that you want to take the next step with your social media and blogging for your ministry, I would love to help you. We have a track of working with numerous churches, ministries, and blogs(including our very own Youthmin.org!) We are offering social media and blogging consultations here exclusively for ministries to help you effectively share the Gospel and better build relationships.

The difference between Faith and Trust

My passion for Family Ministry was brewed almost immediately upon entering the Youth Worker field, and, oddly enough, when I first encountered Facebook. I had had myspace, like every other college student, but Facebook was specifically for college students at the time, and that meant the only people I could connect with were other College students. So I got reconnected with all of my friends from Youth Group that I hadn’t seen since my Family had moved from California to Chicago.

It broke my heart to see the way so many of them were living. Maybe it was judgmental of me, but I could go down a list of names and view their profiles and, in my head, know which ones were still living for God and which had given up on the church. It forced me into questioning what it was that caused that to happen?

Because some of the ones that had fallen away were at Christian colleges similar to where I was at, and some of the ones who were still chasing God were at notorious party schools. We all had the same Youth Pastor, the same sermons every Sunday, and we were all part of the same Student Leadership Team. Each of us got poured into the same amount as the other by our leaders, and when we all graduated, we would have looked like the greatest group of teens heading off to college to change the world for Christ.

But two years later, 4/5th’s of that group was no longer living for God. The best solution I could find, and 7 years later I still hold to, is Family Ministry.

But this post is not about Family Ministry. Because although I believe that to be the best approach, after seeing another close friend who has fallen away from the Faith of their Father and Mother, and the Faith they swore was their own all through High School, and hearing about not just the decisions being made, but the decision making process, I’ve been left with one thought that has rattled around in my head.

It’s not enough to have Faith in Jesus Christ, you have to trust him, too.

I believe that, especially during High School, it’s easy for students to place their Faith in Jesus Christ, place their Faith and hope that Jesus has paid the price for all of their sins, wants the best for them, wants relationship with them. Faith, really, is the easy part, and the inverse of that is that Faith is also easy to fake for many students.

But Trust, that’s a whole different ballgame. Trust has a whole lot more to do with the decision making process. If I have two choices in front of me, and the world says to make decision A, it’s a lot more fun, it’s a lot easier, and everyone else is doing it, but God says make decision B, then I’m going to have to really ask myself “Do I Trust God in this?”

Sadly, I think a lot of Youth Ministries are helping students have Believe in God, have Faith in his existence, but we miss the mark by not helping them learn to Trust God above all else.


 

This post is an adaptation from a section in my upcoming book  Offensive Youth Ministry. I’d love your help with answering the two questions below and I might feature your response(s) in the sidebar of a page.

1) How would you define the difference between Faith vs. Trust?

2) How can we help students develop Trust in God?