The Problem With Summer Camp

Dear Youth Pastors,

I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Isn’t that an awesome and encouraging way to start a blog post?

But seriously, there something I see a lot in relation to summer camps and retreats. It’s the problem of being sold out. Some youth pastors wear that as a badge of honor year after year. Please stop doing that! Sold out camps mean students are getting left out. Sure it could happen by accident one year. If that problem becomes an annual tradition, it means you’re not taking steps to fix the problem.

Excuse #1: The Sacred Cow

Here’s the great news! Some of you have to use the same camp year after year because the pastor’s cousin’s sister-in-law is married to the person who runs the camp. We’ve always gone there and we always will! Sold out camps are your leverage for killing that sacred cow.

The Fix: Leverage the cow over a cliff

If your pastor is nursing a sacred cow and won’t consider other options for camp, it’s time to come at it from a different angle. Don’t ask to move the camp to a new location. In your next meeting, share the amazing successes that came from camp. Get him all fired up about the decisions made. Tell him how it’s impacted your youth ministry for the better. Then lay it on him. Show him your waiting list of students who didn’t get to go because that camp can’t accommodate your ministry. Be ready with a list of camps where you can get more bang for your buck and have room for more students.

That’s a long shot. However, the approach of asking to change camps up front has never worked, so taking a different angle might.

Excuse #2: There Are No Other Options

The only camp within 200 miles of our church is the one we go to. There literally are no other options.

The Fix:  The fix for Excuse #2 is the same as Excuse #3… stay tuned

Keep reading

Excuse #3: Because of family/church schedules, this is the only week we can go on a weeklong camp

The Fix: Offer more options

Our ministry does a fairly good job of this, but has flailed a little over the last couple of years.

Here are some ways to offer more options:

  • Offer a second week of camp if possible
  • Offer other types of camp (ie: Guys camping trips, girls getaways, whitewater rafting trips) These can be shorter if needed, but still offer students opportunities to have relational time with leaders and get challenged in their faith to take next steps.
  • Have a discipleship retreat where students are placed in homes by grade and gender and meet at the church or around the community to learn about how to grow spiritually on their own

Here’s the bottom line I’m getting at:

Please don’t be proud of a summer camp that sells out every year. Figure out how to solve the problem or offer more options. This will require some extra work on your part and creativity. You also don’t have to be at every type of camp offered. You could also have different options going on at the same time – like with guys trips and girls trips. Equip, train and release your leaders to take ownership of some of the opportunities.

Whatever you do, please never be satisfied with a sold out camp until you have other options for those who couldn’t go to sign up for. You’ll have some kids who go to more than one camp. Awesome! Even put the word “camp” in all of your summer events. You may see the main camp numbers go down a little and students spread out among all of the options. That’s a good thing, even if it hurts the ego a little that your camp doesn’t have a sold out sign on it every year.

Thanks for reading and for thinking of ways to solve the problem rather than wearing it as a badge of honor.

Volunteer Youth Worker

Book Review: In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day, by Mark Batterson

I had never heard of Mark Batterson until my sister sent two of his books to me. The book came out in 2006 originally, but he updated it last year for the 10th anniversary. He’s added an additional chapter to the end of the project and makes some comments about things that have changed since originally releasing the book.

This book, In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day has a very memorable title, not because it’s particularly catchy, but because Batterson mentions the title in the text of the book about 200 times. That is the only thing that I really don’t like about the book. Other than that, it’s fantastic.

Okay… just had to get that off my chest.

Here are some solid reasons I loved this book and why I think you would do well to read it:

• It’s well researched – I learned as much from his research as I did his analysis of the research. I write this at the risk of making the book sound boring. It’s not at all. The studies he mentions are fascinating and help the reader understand the what behind the why of what Batterson suggests the reader should do.
• This book is all about chasing our lions, rather than being chased or scared by them. Batterson is trying to get his readers to take that chance they’ve always wished they would have. To step out in faith and see what God does. Even in the face of failure at unsuccessful risks, there is still a lot to be learned.
• Batterson doesn’t sugar coat his own insecurities and failures. While he has had some great success, he writes about some losses, fears, and uncertainty we all experience. However, he also writes about the rewards that would have never come without the steps of faith.
• This is far from a project where he brags about himself from cover to cover. Batterson recounts stories of several other people who have also taken steps of faith. The whole book is about how to take the steps, what they look like, and how taking them has made a world of difference for him, his community and in the lives of others.

Bottom line: By the time you’re done with this book, you will have the motivation to take that next step you’ve been afraid to take. You won’t have all of the answers, but you’ll have the inspiration you need to quit procrastinating.

Click here to buy the book

Hug In Some Culture

This is a picture of me with my boys at our Christmas party a couple of months ago. Seems like it was over a year ago. Although I had been a leader for many of them at camps, being their Life Group leader was like starting over with new boys. With new boys, the good news is my jokes are funny again. I can catch them off guard with a joke I’ve told a million times. It’s glorious. I’m cool again.

The struggle, however, is building in some more unnatural parts of Life Group culture. For this post, I’m specifically writing about hugs. These are super important to have a level of bonding that makes the boys like family with me and with each other. This week was my first glimmer of hope that it’s taking hold. While I didn’t acknowledge it verbally, I for sure took note.

Starting on the second night of Life Group, I start to turn handshakes into hugs. Every boy gets a hug when he arrives at Life Group and when before he leaves. For some of my boys, this could be the only hug they get all week. I don’t make a big deal of it, I just make it happen. Sometimes I’ll even say, “You’re a good guy” or some other quick word of encouragement in the split second of the hug.

They’re always good about it. I even have a “cool” way of doing it that makes it seem a little more masculine. I kinda give them a soft punch on the back with both fists instead of going in for the bear hug. Baby steps, right?

We will let out for the summer in just a couple of weeks and it finally happened. I was in the kitchen the other night when one of the boys had to leave. His mom was here to get him. He sought me out to give me a hug and say goodbye before he left. WE. HAVE. ARRIVED!!! Of course, I acted like nothing special had happened. I gotta keep it cool, right? However, my consistency to build this caring part of our Life Group culture has now become something they initiate.

All of this to say, building culture takes intentionality, consistency and determination over time. If you try something to build culture, don’t be bummed out if it doesn’t take hold right away. We’ve been meeting in Life Group for about 6 months. This is the first time one of my new students has sought out the hug. Caring aspects of youth ministry are too important to give up on. Be the culture until they catch it and take initiative to do it. It’ll happen.

From Student to Missionary

I asked Jordan Bressler to share about his experience as a missionary to New Zealand. I also asked him to share a link at the bottom for how readers can support him. Jordan was an all star student and I’m very proud of him for investing his life in others through missions.

“So where are you from?”

This is a question I get really often these days in New Zealand, where my “accent” immediately puts me out of place.  While the short answer I usually give people is just a generic “America,” the truth is sometimes a little more complicated for me.  Is where you’re from where you were born? Then I would be from Charleston, West Virginia, even though I only lived there for the first 2 months of my life. Is where you’re from where you grew up? Because then I’d be from Israel, where I spent the first 9 years of my life living there. Or would you say the place where you formed your identity and grew the most be the place you’re from? Because then that would be California, USA, having spent the most of my school years there.


Regardless of where I say I’m from, the many different experiences I’ve had in each one of these places has shaped me as a person. I’ve learned about many different cultures, how these cultures interact, and how I can interact with them.  Over the years I have started to really understand Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”


Doing ministry in New Zealand has been a place that I can put together all I’ve learned and interact with many international cultures.  While I’m sure being a brash, young American is a good way to get noticed, only through the learning and becoming “all things to all people” can I hope to reach the lost.


Athletes in Action reaches the lost through a process called “Win, Build, Send.”  The idea is that you “Win” people to Christ, “Build” them up in their faith, and “Send” them out to do the same. One of my favorite examples of this is the story of our student named Mark.  This past August, one of our student leaders, Josh, met Mark one day doing one on one evangelism, where we go out either on our own or in pairs, and randomly walk up to people and try to initiate a spiritual conversation.  Mark wasn’t a Christian at the time, but by the end of the 20 minute conversation he decided that he wanted to make a faith step and begin having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!  


Mark continued to be interested in pursuing a relationship with God, and joined one of my bible studies that semester.  It was refreshing having someone so new to the faith in the group, to ask the fundamental questions, and to allow us to help him grow in his faith.  In addition to our bible studies, Mark attended some of our other social events, monthly meetups, and one on one discipleship meetings that are all a part of our “Build” strategy.  It has been my pleasure to watch Mark grow and to own his own faith, despite no one in his family being a Christian or even supporting the idea of it. He has grown so much that he is almost ready to become one of our new student leaders, ready to be a part of the “Send” phase, and win others over just as he was.


Now you may be hearing this story and think, “Well that’s great and all, but what can I do?”  You may be thinking that New Zealand is just too far away for you to make a difference in the lives of the people who live there, however I would like to give you the opportunity to reach out to the lost young people in New Zealand!  I am looking to add people to my team of supporters to help in several ways, whether it be through prayer (the most important) or financial (the hardest to get).  If you feel called in some way, and you’d like to learn how you can help, receive my monthly newsletters, or learn more about my story, please don’t hesitate to contact me at


If you are interested, email Jordan and/or click the link below, which will take you to his giving page.

The Shack

There is a lot of theological controversy surrounding the new film “The Shack” and whether you agree with what’s being said or not, I’d like to take a few minutes to give you some tips on talking to your students about this film. Put aside the theological debates and look at the film for what it is, a fictional film. Without telling you too much about the film, let me give you some of benefits of seeing this with your students.

Many of your students will at some point face a moment in life that shakes their foundation and stirs up the “What If” and “Why Me God?” questions. The thing I appreciated most about this film is the depiction of what it looks like in our current world to wrestle with God or better yet, to be really angry with God. It’s a story of pain, suffering, and restoration. You see the ups and downs of following the Lord through a very difficult and heartbreaking situation.

There is a scene in the film where the dad enters a room and instantly begins throwing everything in sight, yelling at the Lord. Eventually he falls to his knees, sobbing as he tries to wrap his head around why the Lord would let this event happen to him. Let me just tell you, I have been in that exact place! The results of sin have taken away two very beloved family members from my life in a matter of moments. I wish I could tell you, I acted in a godly manner and turned to the Lord instantly but I didn’t. The dark days that followed that occurrence brought out some very ugly moments between the Lord and I. Moments of yelling in the shower, hoping none of roommates would hear me. Moments of laying sprawled out on my bedroom floor weeping uncontrollably because I couldn’t understand why God would let something like this happen to my family. Well, during this scene all I could think about was how my students need to realize that this kind of wrestling with the Lord is healthy, useful, and healing. It may look ugly and it may seem childish, but our relationship with the Lord needs to be authentic. Students need to know that it’s okay to come before the Lord with every emotion and work through that with the only one that truly understands those emotions.

The rest of the film works through what it’s like to journey with the Lord towards healing through our grief. Again there is a lot of theological debate around some of the things, but when we take it for just a film, we can see the power of healing through walking with the Lord and not turning to earthly things. The film depicts the restoration part of following the Lord in a way that sometimes words don’t do justice. I don’t know how many times I’ve told a student that was struggling something like this; “Surrender hourly to the plans the Lord has for you, and this difficult season will get better.” Or “Are you letting the Lord walk you through this season, or are you turning to boys and partying?” Only for the student to roll their eyes and continue on the path they were going on. This film puts on the screen everything I want to describe to a student who is struggling, or knows someone struggling.

By the end of the film you see a dad who decided to wrestle with the Lord and do the hard work to be restored, come full circle and be filled with life again. I would highly encourage you to go check out the film. Use it as a conversation starter with your students. For more advanced students, use it to talk about those deep theological debates surrounding the film. For the students struggling to make it through the day, use it as encouragement that there is hope in the Lord.

Power In A Picture

I teach Life Group in my home. I want the group to become like family and feel welcome in my living room. One way I accomplish this goal is giving them wall space among my family pictures.

Where ever you meet your students, I highly recommend having pictures of your group in the space. Even if you aren’t allowed to permanently hang pictures, I recommend bringing items where you meet that can make the space feel like home to the group while you’re there. It could be a photo album of your group, a paper mural they made, etc. Make your meeting space feel like the you and your students belong.

Making Lessons Fun

(Sir Richard Branson, Billionaire owner of Virgin Airlines, among other things, poses with a sleeping airline employee)

When I see a funny picture like this online, I don’t stop at just thinking, “that’s a funny picture.” I think, I need to save that and use it in a lesson some day. For an image like this, I might print it out or save it on my phone to show on the TV screen during a lesson. I might use it to point out sometimes we miss great things God wants to do through us because we’re sleeping (or doing anything else that distracts us) instead of paying attention to what he’s doing right in front of us. Illustrations like this make lessons fun, helps students pay attention, and hopefully helps students remember to live out how they get challenged in Life Group.

Straightening The Cookies

Note: The illustration in this post is written tongue in cheek. However, the application of it is quite serious.

So I was in Starbucks today, but left without buying anything. The cashier was in front of the register restocking the cookies in a metal tin.  I was standing in her path of sight, so she knew a customer was waiting. The cookies just would not straighten to her liking so she kept working on them, rather than serving the waiting customer. I didn’t get worked up by this, but I did leave without the drink I was craving. If that would be the worst thing I faced today, I think I’m having a pretty good day.

As I was driving away, I got to thinking about that situation and how it relates to other parts of life, including my work in youth ministry. How am I caught straightening the cookies and missing opportunities with students waiting for my attention? At the risk of making too much out of that cookie situation, I think this is kind of important for youth workers to evaluate.

Here’s a small list of ways all of us may be missing the mark (straightening the cookies, rather than helping students):

  • Interrupting a student talking to us to tell a story her words reminded us of
  • Hanging out in the back of the youth room with other leaders during a program instead of experiencing the service with the students
  • Doing anything on our phones while with students, unless it somehow involves them
  • Quietly daydreaming as we drive our students somewhere, when we could be joining in their conversation

Let’s “straighten the cookies” on our own time. When we’re with students, let’s give them our whole attention.

Intentional Time

I often get asked about the most important ways to be successful when you are a small group leader of students. At the top of my list is building community (I’ll blog about that another time) and the other way is by spending intentional time with students. Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I’ve found that even high school guys who come from homes where a father spends a lot of time with them, that student still wants and needs another adult male to speak into their life.

When you spend time with students, put your cell phone away and make the time about them, not you. Be intentional. Find out what’s going on in their life, be interested in what they are interested in. I hate basketball but two of my high school guys not only love it they play on teams. So before I hang out with them I check the Lakers and Clippers stats and know how they are doing. I’m not fake about it, they know I’m not a fan of basketball but they know I care enough to be able to be conversational with them about basketball.

The honest truth is that students will often times talk to a small group leader about things they are uncomfortable talking to their parents about. I once had a parent tell me they were jealous of the conversations I was able to have with their son but they were really thankful he had someone else in his life he could open up with.

If your church is like most, there are just not enough hours in the day for high school ministry paid staff to spend with each student in their ministry. My church is a mega church and our high school ministry is bigger than the average size of most churches. Our high school ministry staff is amazing and they make our students feel loved and do a great job teaching and showing the love of Jesus to students. With the size of the ministry, however, there is no way possible for them to spend individual time each week with each student.

My 16 small group guys spend about an hour a week with our high school paid staff during a church service. I spend about 4-5 hours a week with them as a group. This week I spent another 2 hours with them individually between lunches, Starbucks runs, texting them and going to their school events. I have two students who suffer from extreme depression so I’ve spent about 5-6 hours of intentional time with them this week. That doesn’t count endless text messages and phone calls with their parents. All of this was on top of working 55 hours this week.

I’m not complaining, I love my ministry and my small group guys are very important to me. My only goal with this post is to show how important it is to have volunteers in student ministry; good, well trained volunteers being intentional about the time they spend with students.

Side note for paid youth workers: For every hour a staff member pours into one volunteer, that volunteer, in turn, multiplies that investment exponentially. Your volunteers can spend time ministering to students in ways the paid staff doesn’t have time to. For every training event that you send your volunteers to or host at your church, your ministry will reap the benefits. Sounds like a good investment to me.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year that leaves most singles feeling left out, frustrated, disappointed in themselves, and a wave of other emotions. It’s easy to see this in adults as they throw “Singles Awareness” parties, or post rants on social media. However, I’ve seen it time and time again in high school students too. They stuff all of these feelings but deep inside they are longing for that romantic relationship to fill the God sized hole of identity in their heart.

Let me repeat that for you. They are longing for a romantic relationship that will fill the God sized hole of identity in their heart.

This is where we as volunteers step in. Today is centered around love and you and I both know that there is a deeper love than what the world is offering today. A love centered around our identity in God. It’s our role to step up our game today and show students that love and the joy that comes from it. It doesn’t matter if you are single, dating, or married, today is an important day to demonstrate and teach the students entrusted to you about what true love is. Remind them they are chosen sons and daughters of the king.

We’ve all heard John 3:16 a million times, but do our students really understand the depth of this verse? Today is a great day to remind them how deep, how wide, how high and how long the Father’s love for them truly is. Send them a text, a social media post, or better yet show up to group this week with a simple reminder of that love. Below are some different tools and ideas for you to use this week.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Here is the Microsoft Word file of the cards we make to save you time making your own – Jeremiah 31 3 verse cards