3 ways to Impact your local school

Students spend  at least 35 hours a week at their school. Clearly this is the center of their world. If we are to take incarnational ministry seriously then we need to partner with the school.

This is one of our last installments on Incarnational ministry. If you have not yet read some of our thoughts on incarnational ministry I would encourage you to go back and see our last few posts; Jesus came to us, Fishing for students, 5 things you can count on if you choose incarnational ministry.  They will help get you up to speed before you read on.

A few years back we decided to begin a relationship with the school in our township. So I called the middle school and made an appointment to speak with the principal.  The day of our appointment, one of our middle school leaders and I were ushered into a conference room. Then a middle school entourage came in; the principal, followed by both vice principals, three guidance counselors and finally two interns. They all sat down, pens and notepads in hand ready to write. Then the principal looked at me and motioned with her hand as if to say “you called this meeting, it’s your agenda, so get started”. The school staff was tense,  they looked as if they were bracing for what I was about to say.

Prior to our meeting, as we brainstormed out our agenda, it became obvious that the best agenda would be not to have an agenda.  We listened to the advice of Reggie McNeal who  we heard say “just ask ‘How can we help?’ “.

So I started the meeting by saying “We are here today because we care about students, and we know you care about the same students, so how can we help? How can we help you care about students here in the middle school?”  There was a huge sigh of relief, all the school staff smiled and their posture relaxed. The tension in the room was gone.

Since that first meeting we have been building a healthy relationship with our local school.  Just like any other relationship it takes time; trust is built slowly.  However, today when I walk into the school I am greeted and treated as an ally. The staff is glad to see me and I am excited to be at the school.

From my experiences working with schools here in Ohio and in Pennsylvania,  I have found there  are a few simple ways to begin to make an impact in the local school.

  1. Make your agenda Service. Too often the church takes an antagonistic posture towards the school. We go to the school with an agenda and an attitude which says “this is what we want from you”. Instead we should approach the school with a humble heart that seeks to serve them and says “how can we help?”. When we ask to help we might not get answers we expect.  Be prepared to hear things like “clean the parking lot, run the snack bar or chaperone a dance” and then be willing to help.  There’s no point in asking if you are not willing to do what they ask. Also, the school might respond with “nothing right now”. That’s ok if that happens, remember, trust is built slowly.
  2. Take Initiative and Volunteer. After letting the school know you are willing to help, the next step is to take initiative and volunteer. The truth is that if you are always waiting for the school to call you, then you will always be waiting.  Generally the school is not going to call, at least not for the first few years. So take initiative and volunteer to help with school events. They are always looking for help. In the last 6 months I have helped with three middle school events; a dance, a Halloween party and a dodgeball tournament.  To do this, find out which parent organization or teacher committee plans events and contact them. Before you make that call, look in the mirror and remind yourself that your only agenda is to serve.
  3. Seek to Encourage. The school staff pour themselves into students each day. The demands placed upon them are difficult in some cases and in others overwhelming. Who is pouring into and encouraging the staff? No one. Principals, guidance counselors, teachers and administrators rarely hear affirming words.  So I would suggest that you find ways to encourage, affirm and build them up. Last fall I bought $5 Starbuck gift cards for all the office staff at the middle school.  I hand wrote  personalized notes of encouragement and gave the gift cards with the notes to the staff. It cost me about $100 and four hours of time.   A caution here: make sure you are not encouraging to make yourself look good, but simply because you care about the school staff.

5 things you can count on if you choose Incarnational Ministry

  1. It will be awkward. There is no way around this. When an adult goes to where teenagers are and enters their world it just feels strange at first.  Students know it’s a little weird and you know it’s a little weird.  I can remember sitting in my car outside the local school almost 16 years ago. I was building up the courage to walk into a middle school girl’s basketball game.  I kept telling myself “just do your best to blend in”. When I went in, there were less than 20 people watching the game. No chance to blend in, so I went and sat next to a group of 5 students. And then a boy asked me the dreaded question “which one is your daughter?” I responded with confidence….. “Um…  none of them”. The boy persisted “So then why are you here?”   Sweat was beading on my forehead. “I am here to support the team” was the best I could do….awkward.  When you go, be prepared for it to be awkward.  If you make a commitment to regularly go to the same areas, or school, eventually they will expect to see you.  Just realize it will take some time.  The awkward phase will pass, I promise.
  2. You will get rejected. Do not take it personally just get used to the idea that students are going to reject you. The very first football game I went to here in Ohio I was doing my best to simply be present and say hello to students. I started to walk along the track and saw two students who I had met at our church walking towards me. I though to myself “finally! someone I know I can talk with”. The closer I got the more it became obvious they did not want me to see them. As we passed each other I said “Hi” loud enough to be heard. They looked the other way and just kept walking. It is painful to be rejected.  It still hurts today as much as it did then (5 years ago). Over time as students begin to embrace leaders being with them the frequency of rejection goes down a bit, but it never really stops.
  3. It will feel like a waste of time. After the first couple of times you go to where students are, experience the awkwardness, get rejected and don’t really have any good conversations, you will begin to wonder if it is worth your time and energy. Do not give up though or you will miss some of the greatest joys in student ministry. So count the cost up front and realize that it might take 6 to 12 months until you feel  good about the incarnational work you are doing.
  4. Your prayer life will grow.  The bottom line is we can not change anyone’s heart. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us, to help us in conversations and to grant us favor with the people we meet. When we leave the safe confines of our office and head to student’s turf we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit in a very tangible way. I think this dependence forces us to pray. I pray while I am in my car on the way to the school, while I am walking into events, while I am talking to students and then when I am walking back to my car thanking the Spirit for leading me.  To be completely honest, I feel inadequate and naked each time I seek to be incarnational. The realization that I can not do it has made me humble and produced in me a desire to pray and allow the Holy Spirit to guide me.
  5. Lives will change. When we choose to be incarnational and develop a ministry of presence in a community we do not know how God will use us. We must pray hard, seek guidance and simply trust that the Holy Spirit will orchestrate our efforts. I have had the privilege of seeing God work through incarnation countless times. Quite frankly it is hard to summarize. He does so many things through us when we GO.  Here are just a two ideas:
  • Students we already know. You are modeling Jesus to the students you already know. You are giving them an example of how to GO. You are showing them how much you love them by entering their world. Therefore when you challenge them to GO (which could be to their sports team, their neighborhood, a friend at lunch, a local nursing home or soup kitchen)  they will already have seen you do it. You are actually discipling them by being incarnational.
  • Students we don’t know.   Through the years I have seen a pattern emerge. God uses multiple points of contact with students we do not know to change their lives.  Let me tell you just one story of many. Steve played on the football team. I volunteered twice a week to help coach and was able to meet him at practice. He was injured and so we were able to talk a couple times. It never came up that I worked at a church.  I saw Steve at a basketball game in the winter. We didn’t talk, just a head nod and a “hi”. On Easter his family decided to visit our church. I saw him and said hello and we talked a minute. I met his mom. Then I walked up on stage and did the welcome. I think at that point he realized I worked at the church. A month later I volunteered at the school judging some speeches. His mom saw me and recognized me. She was there judging also. She introduced me to a bunch of people she knew. One of the people turned out to be the mom of a guy I was discipling. That mom asked Steve’s mom if Steve was going on mission trip that summer. Turns out Steve knew 2 guys who were going.  Steve goes on the trip, and begins his journey with Jesus.

Fishing for Students

Mark 1:16-18   “One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them,“Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.”

Last fall I had a chance to teach a couple of evenings at a local college. It was a class on evangelism. I started by reading  Mark 1:16-18 and then asked the students “When fishing, what is most critical to catching fish?”. The class started to shout out all sorts of answers: “you have to use the right bait, the rod you use is important, the time you go fishing is important, you have to be quiet, a boat helps, you have to go with a person named Bubba”. I responded “Those are all good answers. Bubba could probably help, but you’ve missed the one critical issue. You can have the right bait, the best rod, a sweet boat, and a fishing coach but without this I can guarantee you will not catch fish”. The class was perplexed, thinking they had covered it all.  It became very quiet at that point. They were stumped. Are you stumped too? Do you know what they missed?

So I said “What if we took all our expensive gear and jumped in our beautiful boat (along with Bubba) and launched our boat into the parking lot at the mall? How many fish would we catch?” as soon as the words were out of my mouth they understood. The most important thing  we can do is go to where the fish are. If we are not doing that, then nothing else will matter. If you want to catch fish, you have to go to where the fish are.

I heard it said that “we are no longer fishers of men but keepers of aquariums”.  I agree with this.   Most people I meet in student ministry are aquarium keepers.  Somehow we have come to a place where we spend all our time and resources buying the best gear, but it doesn’t do us any good because we don’t go to where the students are. Leaders are frustrated and can’t figure out why their ministry is spiritually flat.

Ultimately we have to come face to face with the reality that we must leave the comfort of our offices and enter the world of teenagers. It can be intimidating though knowing where to begin, and what to do. Therefore I’m going to unpack some of the how-to’s of incarnational ministry. If you would like more details or need to ask clarifying questions please leave a comment so we can have some open discussion. Rome wasn’t built in a day, this will take some work on your part and you will probably need some coaching. So feel free to ask. We are all in this together.

How do I get started? If you are going to begin doing incarnational ministry the first step is simply finding out  where students hang out.  Ask some of these questions:

  • Where do students hang out after school?
  • Where do they like to eat?
  • What sporting events do they go to?
  • What school activities do they go to?
If you do not know the answer to these questions, then begin spending time in the area and simply observe where students are. You might also consider asking some of the students you already know to find out what they think.  Here is how we answer the questions for middle school students in our context:
  • Where do students hang out after school?  They either go home, go to athletic practice, or to the YMCA. On Fridays a large group goes to Dairy Queen.
  • Where do they like to eat? They like Dairy Queen, Starbucks and Sonic, all of which are in walking distance from the school.
  • What sporting events do they go to? They go to home football games on Friday nights.
  • What school activities do they go to? They participate in school dances, choir concerts, musicals and most recently a dodgeball tournament.

So where do you think you will find me and our leadership team? Where the students are. I do my best to make it to the school and Dairy Queen at least once a week. Sometimes I go to middle school basketball games. This past week I helped organize and run the middle school dodgeball tournament.  In the fall, I attend the home football games.  Once you know where the students are, you GO to that place.

What do I do when I GO? When I go my only agenda is to be present in their world and care for students.  I do not hand out tracks, I do not initiate spiritual conversations, I do not carry my Bible.  Heck, I don’t even tell students I work at a church.  I simply want them to know me as John, a guy that cares. I have been in the game long enough to know that God will connect the dots when the time is right.  Eventually a student will find out who I am and where I work. I’m not suggesting that I never have a spiritual conversation. I am continually praying and asking the Holy Spirit for the right words and attitude. What I am suggesting is that you allow students to initiate the deeper talks.  In the mean time, I simply am present in their world. So when you go, leave the agenda behind. Simply go be present with them in their world.

Three tips on initial conversations with students.

  • Don’t be shy. Say “hi” but keep conversations to a minute or less at first. Long conversations are too intimidating for students.
  • Ask questions. When I am waiting in line to get my blizzard I’ll ask the student in line behind me “what do you usually get?”.  At a football game I will ask “who is a good player?”. The art of asking questions is a key to conversing with students.
  • Don’t bring up church or ministry. Your agenda is to be with students and hang out on their turf. Don’t mention your ministry, students coming to church or anything to do with church. You are not there to sell anything. Learn to love and care about students on their turf without putting a target on their back.  It could be that over time Jesus will put a particular group of students on your heart. And perhaps you get to have deeper conversations with them, or maybe not. Either way, are you still willing to go to them and be with them?

One final thought.  I saved to best for last.  Pray. And not just 5 minutes before you get out of your car and walk into the local hangout spot. Spend a chunk of time praying. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and go ahead of you to encourage student’s hearts. Acknowledge that nothing is going to happen unless the Holy Spirit does it.   Ask Jesus to search your heart and help you to be humble. The last thing you want is to go to students with an inflated ego.

Tomorrow:  5 things you can count on when being incarnational.

Jesus came to us

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”            John 1:14

Jesus entered our world. He moved into the neighborhood. He became one of us so that we could understand Him and be connected to Him. He did not expect us to come to Him, He saw our need, He made the first move and met us where we were at.  It is an amazing idea isn’t it? God became one of us so that we could be rescued and have a picture of how to live with Him.

We enter student’s world. If we want to be effective in the lives of teenagers then we need to go to them. We have to figure out how to “move into the neighborhood”.  It is foolishness to expect middle school and high school students to come to us. Jesus left heaven and came to earth. We must leave our church buildings and go to where students are at.

Distinguishing Relational and Incarnational Ministry.  I’d like to point out one critical difference between relational and incarnational ministry. It is critical that we understand this if we are going to move forward in missional student ministry.

I’ve noticed that in student ministry circles we spend a lot of time discussing relational ministry. We all know that the foundation of what we do is relationships between adults and students.  Adults who know and follow Jesus pour into the lives of students and the conduit for this is the relationship they have.  This seems to be commonly accepted and embraced. What I’ve also noticed is that the students we hang out with are the ones that come to us.  We do not enter their world. They come to church, we meet them on our turf and then we hang out with them. While this is relational ministry it is not incarnational.  Incarnational involves us leaving our church world and entering the world of teenagers. This is something we have lost sight of and need to regain.

How Can we do this? In the conversations I have with folks the general consensus is that most are not seeking to be incarnational and most do not know how. We struggle with knowing where to start. Therefore over the next week or so we will lay out three different ways to begin to be incarnational.

  • Fishing for Students
  • Impacting the School
  • Shot Gun Ministry

Until then I would encourage you to seek Jesus out, thank Him for moving into the neighborhood and ask Him to show you how to be like Him and do the same thing.

Post Verge

In all honesty, I’m not even sure where to begin on recapping some highlights from the Verge Conference last week.  I guess I’ll start by saying that it was really refreshing to hear many of the leading thinkers and practitioners of the missional movement share about the future of the Church in America and where they say it needs to be going.

Here’s just a few of the many highlights and take-a-ways:

  • One that I think we all agreed on and enjoyed was the conversations that we got to be a part of.  It’s always good to hear other people and churches share their stories.  Since the conference was focused on Missional Communities many of the conversations we had were focused on our churches’ journeys on the missional path.  I really enjoy hearing other people’s stories of successes and even failures (it’s how we learn and grow from one another).
  • A take-a-way that really stood out to us was the emphasis on prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit.  I know it may sound silly for us to say that because we are on a church staff, but when we are being missional and incarnational with those around us the only thing worthwhile that we have to offer people is Jesus.  When we find ourselves rooted in prayer, as well as the Word, and are in tune to the Spirit’s promptings then the incarnational, life transformational piece begins to take place with those that we are being missional with!
  • The Gospel is NOT behavior control/modification!  Jeff Vanderstelt laid this out in one of his Pre-Conference seminars and it proved to be a big take-a-way for us.  As we are being missional and intentional with people around us things are going to get messy.  Lives are messy.  People are messy.  I talked briefly about this in one of our previous posts.  Our goal isn’t to get people to act right or say the right things that might fit into a Christian mold.  Instead our goal should be to disciple them and as Jeff said, allow the “change of behavior to come from a change of heart.”  This approach tends to change how we view and approach those relationships and those  around us that we are discipling.  It was a very good and refreshing word.

Overall, it was great conference and time away.  Plus it was good to be hanging out with John Moores and Alex Absalom for a week in Texas at the end of February!  It definitely was a nice change of weather from what we are used to this time of year in Northeast Ohio.  On top of that, I know God spoke to each of us and gave us many Kairos moments.  John and I both felt that there was some stuff that God was speaking to us specifically concerning missional student ministry that we will be flushing out on here over the next several weeks and months.