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


A Student Shares Why His Leader Matters

Last weekend I met a student named Jeff who told me about his Life Group leader. The more I heard, the more I realized I needed to share his story. My hope is reading why Jeff loves his leader, you will be encouraged and realize what a difference you are making in the lives of your students.

Here’s what Jeff has to say about his leader (I left this unedited, except for some paragraph breaks, so you can see it just as it was written):

Hello! My name is Jeff and I’m a Junior in high school and I’ve grown up at the church my whole life. Because of my involvement at the church I’ve been around A TON of leaders. Leaders at summer camps, weekend retreats, serve trips, weekend service leaders and, most of all, small group leaders. Small Group leaders are my favorite. I’ve been through quite a few since the start of my small group (called “life groups” at my home church) in 7th grade. I’ve been asked to share from a student’s perspective what makes an awesome leader, so here we go!

My first account of an absolutely incredible Youth Ministry Leader was actually one of the first leaders I ever had. When I got thrown into a small group of 7th grade guys I just barely knew, I also got thrown into a group with the junior high pastor at our church and a high school student that were tasked with somehow, every Wednesday night, teach us about fellowship and Christ Jesus.

Now I remember vaguely some awesome lessons our pastor taught us at small group, but I remember even more so, our high school leader, Blake, being so present in our group. Blake served at the same service most of the guys in our group attended so everyone once in awhile, after service a few of us boys would pack into Blake’s old 90’s Jeep Grand Cherokee and go get burgers.

Blake would take us to get food, hangout and listen to music, give us rides to church and would always, always be at group on Wednesdays. We would talk about cars and trucks and motorcycles and about going camping and listening to music and how girls were oddly becoming more and more intriguing and we would talk and hang out and do absolutely whatever. It didn’t matter what we were doing. It mattered that Blake, an older leader, someone that had some amount of responsibility, someone that probably had something more important to do, spent his time with us.

It didn’t always have to be a spirit-infused conversation about the Godhead. It didn’t always have to be a “sit down and let me tell you what I’m struggling with”. Blake was and is a magnificent leader because he was my friend first. So when I needed to have those conversations, ask those tough biblical questions, tell him the dark stuff, I was ready, willing and running to him because he wasn’t a just my leader, he was a dear friend. And I’m always so stoked to tell people he still is. Even after he resigned from leading our small group, even after he started having to pay bills and worry about a future and a girlfriend and so much more, he still is my friend.

I still meet up with Blake as often as I can and get counsel if I need it, but also we still talk about cars (Jeeps specifically because that 90’s Grand Cherokee became my favorite car and I now have a newer version of that same model, due solely to Blake’s Jeep), we, unsurprisingly, still talk about girls and still get lunch. Blake is after 6 small group leaders, countless summer camp leaders and many more weekend leaders, still the best leader I’ve ever met. A great leader to me is anyone who is willing to generously give their time, but most of all, genuine friendship to students that need it. Doing that just allows Jesus to work through leaders even more effortlessly.

The Power of Ice Cream

I’ve been a high school small group leader for the past eight years and I’m always amazed by the power of a few pints of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. There are always those weeks during the year when you run out of energy, time, or the capacity to plan for your weekly lesson. I think we can all admit to being there at some point or another.

On those nights I’ve adopted the rule that instead of faking it to make it, I surprise my group with intentional fellowship. I’ve usually seen something on Instagram or Twitter in the past week or so that’s made me cringe so I try to rope that topic into the night in some form or another. But take note, it’s all done with Ben & Jerry’s being at the center of the table with multiple spoons in each pint.

These nights have ended up to be some of the best. The vulnerability that comes out as we sit eating our favorite flavors in sweatpants, is amazing. I’ve had girls open up about secret relationships, addictions and even frustrations and hatred aimed at people around the table. Most of these nights I sit back and let the students pastor each other and that’s what I love most!

It cost a few extra bucks but it’s totally worth it. You’ll laugh, make some new memories, and break ground on the real stuff happening in the lives of your students. So bust out the ice cream and see where the Lord guides the night!

Show Me A Sign

Each year for the last few years, I’ve made a sign for my Life Group. This, believe it or not, has been a great youth ministry tool.

Here’s how I’ve used it and how it’s helped:

  • I put it outside my front door every week for Life Group
    – If the sign is ever not out, parents know something’s different so they don’t drop off their kid and drive off. They probably missed a message and don’t know we’re at the church, or we’re off for some reason
    – If mom always drops off her son, but dad is doing it one week, it makes it easier on dad to make sure he is in the right place when he comes back to pick up his son. I live in a condo and they all look alike.
  • I take this to any event we have so parents know they’re in the right place
    – This has become a bit of a joke. Parents laugh at how organized I am (in a good way)
    – Parents think I’m more organized because I put out a sign. Hmmm… how’s that for an easy win. We work hard for them to have a good perception of us. There’s an easy one I didn’t have to work hard for.
  • I used it as a keepsake one year for a student who moved away at the end of the year
    – We all signed the back of the sign
    – He’s now in college, but still has this sign in his room. I’ve been out to see him a couple of times and always see that as a youth ministry trophy – we did something as a group that supported one of our own during a difficult time and he still appreciates it several years later

Here’s the point of telling you all of this: Sometimes we stumble across the simplest things in youth ministry that become unlikely, but very helpful, youth ministry tools. What have you discovered that works for you? Share it with us. We’d love to post it on the blog or you can post it in the comments. If this sign idea somehow works for you, please use it. What do you have that the rest of us can think about using?

//Side note: want me to make a sign for you? Happy to help. Just click one of the products below.

Guest Post: 3 Characteristics of a Jesus-like Leader

First of all, I believe one of the best leaders of all time was Jesus. Shocker right? But I believe it. His ability to lead in the time he was here on earth and the lasting effect He had is not comparable to anyone else. I look at the people around me who are phenomenal leaders and I begin to wonder, “What in the world makes them good leaders? Why do people follow them? Why are they thriving?” Here is the realization:

They all have the leadership characteristics of Jesus. Humility. Kindness. Grace.

If you want to lead well, these things need to be present in you, in your ministry leaders and those you take care of. This is why students flocked to these leaders. This is why any leader is respected, followed and leads well. It is because they are like Jesus. The question is, “Do you leak these things?” Chances are that if you as the leader of leaders and of students, if you don’t, the people you lead don’t either.


I mean think about humility for a second. Have you ever walked out of a meeting with a humble leader and thought, “That was a waste of time.” Probably not. In fact, probably the opposite, I always walk away feeling refreshed. When someone is prideful, they leave a bad taste in your mouth. When someone leads with humility, someone who doesn’t grasp power, someone who listens intently and knows when they are wrong and can admit it to help others, people will flock to it.

I remember my first ministry job. I was not humble. I was the opposite. Do you know what the opposite of humility is? Pride. Pride is something I struggled with all of my life. I don’t know if it was because I was a late bloomer in the leading department but the moment I realized people followed me, it became a struggle for me. I see why now Satan tried to tempt Jesus in the desert with power. It can be addictive if you are not careful. It took a hard conversation from Josh to help me realize where my state of mind was and how unhealthy it really was for me and the people around me. 

Humility might be something people desire from a leader but pride will for sure kill anything the Spirit is doing in you.

Granted, Jesus lived a perfect life, but He was the epitome of humility. Just read through Philippians 2. I believe this is why Jesus was a fantastic leader and this is why some of your leaders are fantastic as well.


Has someone ever said something to you that maybe you know you needed to hear but the way that they said it was hurtful? Yes, you might of needed to hear what they had to say but they was they said it made it to the point you didn’t even hear the constructive criticism to make you better because you were hurt on their tone.

What you have to say could build someone up but how you say it to them could tear them down twice as fast.

This is why having a kind leader is so necessary. Sometimes when you hear the word “kind” you hear “push-over”. This is not the case at all. Some people don’t have kindness at all. Jesus had it. In every encounter he had with people (except the Pharisees) as he was doing ministry, he treated them well. He asked them questions. He healed people. He had compassion on them. He interacted with kindness. The leaders who show genuine kindness to your students are the ones you need to praise and lift up and make examples of because this is why students flock to them. This is why they are great leaders.


I always tell our leaders, when a student opens up to you we need to be sure we watch our reactions to whatever it is they are telling us. We need to respond with grace. The leaders who are killing it during our midweek services are the ones who show students the most grace but are correcting in doing so. Students mess up. We mess up. Mature leaders realize the grace to the grace we have been given and proof their realization when they can show and express grace to the students they interact with. Jesus was the master at this is. This is why he is such a great leader.

These are the characteristics all great leaders have. So I have to ask the question, “Do you have these things?” I want to lead like Jesus. These are the things He did and showed us and if you look at your own great leaders (and hopefully yourself) you will see these three characteristics.



About the Guest Author

Justin Knowles has been a pastor for the last 8 years and is the Lead Student Ministries Pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in San Dimas, CA. He oversees 7th-12th grade and has an amazing team that put on midweek services for junior high and high school students. He is passionate about reaching all kinds of students for Jesus, leading teams and writing about his learnings in ministry on the blog

Follow Justin on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebookor visit

Reflect or Prep

I just finished my morning devotions, or did I just finish lesson prep? Being a youth worker, it’s so hard to have my quiet time with God and not turn it into lesson prep for my Life Group students. If I’m not careful, and I’m often not careful, God’s word doesn’t transform me, it inspires a lesson I write to teach others.

Maybe this is what Paul was talking about when he asked, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? I do what I don’t want to do, but I don’t want to do what I ought to do?” Both the misapplication of that verse and the paraphrase of it are my fault. Sorry. In this scenario, that’s how I feel, though. I really want to soak in God’s word and let it transform me. However, I have a lesson to teach on Wednesday and this is really good stuff… but it needs to be about me and God in this moment.

Do you see what I mean, though? I’m asking myself how (or if) I soak in God’s word, rather than just pass it on. I’m writing this blog post because if I’m asking myself this question, I’m guessing a lot of other ministry leaders need to do themselves this question, too.

Rather than posting 5 bullet points for how to do this, you may have already got what you needed by reading this far. I’m done. Soak it in. Thanks for reading.

The First Night

I will never forget December of my freshmen year of high school. I grew up in a Christian home and attended church every weekend and midweek every Wednesday night. However, as a teen I never enjoyed it. This is the story of the night that changed, and I changed, for good.

On a Wednesday night I walked into a new friend’s home. What I experienced next was radical to me; something that all of our students should feel. I was in the youth group of my friend’s church, but we were in her house. I was greeted with kind words, open arms, and leaders who intentionally got to know me that night.

Within twenty minutes I was braiding some girl’s hair while talking about Manchester United with the guys. I don’t know how it happened as I was an extremely shy introvert growing up, but it did. Now as I adult I look back and know what I experienced that night was the love of Jesus flowing out of his people.

That’s how our youth groups/small groups should look and feel. What if every group was a place where students felt so loved that they couldn’t help but bring their friends to group? And then what if those friends felt the love of Jesus so they became committed to followers and invited their friends?

The ripple effect of having a welcoming, friendly, family-like youth group is astonishing. It doesn’t require money or flashy programs. It just requires the love of Jesus being rooted in the hearts of students. It’s been sixteen years since that night. The small group leader  I was assigned to that night is still involved in my life! She’s one of my best friends, as is that friend who invited me to group the first night.

This leads me to two questions I hope readers will reflect on:
1. Is your youth group a place where visitors see and experience Jesus through your students?
2. If not, what needs to change?

Let’s have a conversation about this. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. What works for you? Do you have questions about how we do Life Groups at Saddleback Church? I’d love to chat back and forth about this.

Upward Influence

As volunteer youth workers, we do our ministries a favor when we bring new ideas to the table. The caution here is to not expect our ideas to be adopted. However, if we don’t offer them, the ministry for sure won’t even consider them.

Today I decided I’m going to start challenging my students occasionally to follow through on the weekend messages. I’m going to do this by text message. Taking this a step further, I thought it would be a good idea if our High School Ministry sent out text message challenges to leaders each week so we could pass them on to students for them.

Here’s why I think this is a good idea:

  1. If the challenge comes from their Life Group leader, instead of the staff, it’s more personal
  2. Doing this draws volunteer leaders into a more central role in the ministry in the eyes of students
  3. The leaders who are relaying the messages will be more likely to become weekend leaders if we are challenging the students to take action
  4. Students will be more likely to attend weekend services when they are challenged by the weekend services

What solid ideas do you have that you could pass on to your youth ministry team? If they use them, great. If they alter them, then use the ideas, wonderful! If they don’t use them at all, at least we gave them the option. Maybe they’ll use them later. Way to be a team player!