Building Authentic Relationships In A Fake Relationship World, is the title of the second workshop I get to teach at SYMC.

Last night as I was leaving youth group one of my “Senior” guys was laughing about “SnapChat” pictures he likes to send people. I told him some facts about SnapChat he never knew (like how the company does indeed save your pictures, they are not truly “gone,”) and he was shocked. It lead to a conversation about the way we get to know people and go deep. We would rather text than talk in person. However, a study done by Brigham Young University found that it’s more satisfying to send a “loving” text than it is to receive one. Facebook has been dwarfed by Instagram in the teen world as a place where they post a “seflie” and create a persona of who they want to be. Did you know in some sociological circles they believe this actually helps with and is important to identity formation?

Here’s the thing. Those of us in ministry all know that relationship is the way we grow. The teen years are awkward and communication is difficult to begin with. Face-to-face relationship building is a challenge with this age. Then we add in social media and digital formats where we can “hide” our “true selves” and it feels impossible.  What do we do?  How do we  navigate growing in relationship, while embracing the world our teens are living in?

I feel like I have more and more conversations all the time about how to engage this digital culture in a relational manner. This has involved me digging and researching what those in my group are doing as well as the rest of the world.  It’s also caused me to be creative in my interactions with students, and even learn to educate parents.

In a predatory world the days of simply picking a student out and taking them out one on one are gone. In some churches and ministry this is “against the rules.”

So how DO we navigate this new world of relationships? Come to my workshop, let’s hangout and talk about it!

Leneita / @leneitafix


Love and relationships are always hot topics, but especially in February.

To top it off, the Olympics are on TV right now.

Mash those two together, and you have a prime opportunity to deepen your students’ understanding of what love is.

Here’s a lesson you can utilize or tweak however you’d like.

Hope it serves you – thank you for loving students!



Explain that you’re going to begin your lesson by encouraging them to try to listen to God through two popular songs you’re going to play back to back. The goal for this time is not that they sing along or be entertained by something they may have heard on the radio, but that they try to consider the two different types of commitment being shared here. Dim the lights to minimize distraction, and play these two songs:

  • “Say Something” by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
  • “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz

[ Option: Combine these two into a video that guides them during this time: ]


Talk with the students about what they gained from that time.

  • Which of those two songs symbolizes the type of love you’ve seen modeled growing up in our community or culture?
  • Which of those two songs symbolizes the type of love you’d like to experience or give another person?
  • What do you think it takes from someone to say something that the lyrics in the first song?
  • What do you think it takes from someone to say something that the lyrics in the second song?

[ Download this Power Point slideshow for the following ]


Ask students to read the following Bible verses out loud and pause after each one to brainstorm the role that truth might play in a committed relationship, such as marriage.

  • Psalm 34:18
  • Hebrews 12:15
  • Philippians 4:12


Use the Power Point slides to cycle through these points as you share them.

Say something like:

[slide]  “The Olympics may have started recently, but reporters, athletes and tourists from around the world began checking into the Sochi hotels even before that.

[slide]  Many began describing appalling conditions in the housing there. Hotels are still under construction. Water, if it’s running, isn’t drinkable. This has spilled over into some of the conditions the athletes are enduring, too.

One person said it this way: ‘Almost every room is missing something: light bulbs, TVs, lamps, chairs, curtains, WiFi, heat, hot water. Shower curtains are a valuable piece of the future black market here. (One American photographer was simply told, “You will not get a shower curtain.”) In one hotel, the elevator is broken and the stairway is unlit, with stairs of varying and unpredictable heights. Outside another hotel, there is a bag of concrete in a palm tree, leaking grey down the trunk. Inside, some of the electrical outlets are just plates screwed into drywall.’

[slide]  One famous picture is of a sign outside a toilet… the person who posted it said, “People have asked me what surprised me the most here in Sochi. It’s this. Without question… it’s… THIS.” A sign that says “Please do not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Put it in the bin provided.”

[slide] One person spoke about his experience with the hotel lobby… which was non-existent.

“OK, so my hotel doesn’t have a lobby yet.”
“For those of you asking, when there’s no lobby in your hotel, you go to the owner’s bedroom to check in.”

[slide] One woman wrote, “My hotel has no water. If restored, the front desk says “do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.”

[slide] She later updated, adding, “Water restored, sorta. On the bright side, I now know what very dangerous face water looks like.”

[slide] Another woman warned, “What your step #Sochi2014 – I’ve noticed on walkway and on sidewalks that not all man holes are covered.”

[slide] A man observed, “Spa and Fitness Center at Gorki Grand Hotel… you get in shape by putting it together?”

[slide] Another guy said, “Good news. I have internet. Bad news. It’s dangling from the ceiling in my room.”

[slide] Other pictures showing the unique conditions the athletes are staying in have also been made popular.
This is certainly not the standard many people would expect of the Olympics, let alone your basic Holiday Inn Express.

[slide] So let me ask an obvious question… why would an athlete, journalist or even a visitor stick this out?

You know the answer, don’t you? It’s the Olympics… even in harsh conditions, it’s the Olympics.

Sure, things are hard. People are experiencing circumstances that would make them want to leave. Yet they aren’t leaving. They’re still there – the athletes, the reporters and the tourists.

Now… how about an honest question – how many of the marriages you know about in your family or extended family… your friend’s moms and dads… your neighbors… how many have approached their marriage realizing that they’re in an Olympic level relationship? That things may not be ideal, but there is a more important Story worth hanging in there on to enjoy?

How many of you realize what’s on the line one day if you get married… that there will be times you will say, “Yeah, these circumstances are less than ideal, but I’m in this for the gold.”

[slide] It reminds me of one more passage of Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (read it)

BRAINSTORM: This is a passage about what it means to live life as a Christian, but there are some great principles here about relationships. What from this passage could you apply into what a God-honoring, Olympic-level love kind of marriage could look like?

(let students come up with ideas – affirm them, and then share this summary)

[slide] You all had great ideas. Let me sum up what I see in this passage:

  • Understand you are in a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Push yourself past your perceived limits.
  • Run toward a real goal – no “Wii” running
  • Cross the actual finish line.

Wrap Up:

Remind them of the songs from earlier, and ask them to identify how these ideals either do or don’t play into each song. Ask them to identify what (in their opinion) is the number one quality they need to actually live this out. Let them struggle with this a bit, and then guide them to the realization that they won’t be motivated to love this way until they’ve experienced love this way. This is the kind of love Jesus offers us. He sings the second song over us each day, and models what we see in 1 Corinthians.

Reread the three Bible verses from earlier. Ask students to consider how God is with us at every step of our journey in knowing His love and in how we love others. Invite students to respond to the grace and love of Jesus Christ – this is a great opportunity to help them make a decision to receive Him as Savior/Lord.

If you have time (and if it makes sense to your group), dare them right then and there pray for the relationships now and the potential future marriage they might have one day. Encourage them to even pray for their future spouse – that God would strengthen and love on that person even now.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 12.03.53 PMWe can easily fall into the trap of only thinking about our position.

It’s much tougher to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and process through what they are thinking or feeling.

In hopes of helping us do that in one of the more sensitive areas of our culture, here are 6 questions I believe gay students are asking about us and our ministries:

  1. How is it possible for me to relate to Christians in a church context?
  2. Will everyone define me as “gay?”
  3. Will people think I chose to be like this?
  4. Do they think I’m going to hit on them?
  5. Will they kick me out if I’m honest?
  6. Will I be able to fit in with everyone or will I be treated differently?

Food for thought!



parableEvery once in a while you find a video that feels the perfect parable for just about anything.

I’m not sure if this one qualifies,but as I watch it I see so many analogies regarding how relationships can work.

  • Our relationships in the church
  • Our relationships in the home
  • Our relationships with those we serve
  • Our relationships with those we serve alongside of
  • Our relationship with God

Ignore the lyrics of this (if you can), and look for how the dynamics of this may speak to you.

Share your comments/insights as you do. Thanks!

busyYou know the temptation.

It goes something like this:

  • Plan for your program.
  • High-five some kids as they come in.
  • Say something profound in your message or class time.
  • Talk up the next big event.
  • Run the next event.
  • Over-hype everything you did so your church is glad they hired you.

(I hope that last one rubbed you the wrong way. Either you aren’t doing that, so you’re offended… or you are doing that, and you’re offended.)

That list as a whole may be a stereotype of your pattern. If you’re a good youth worker, you’re obviously doing more than that.

  • You have a broken heart over the phone calls you get from students.
  • You have run out of words from the conversations you’ve had with parents.
  • You have yet another meeting to explain to your church leadership something they don’t yet understand.
  • You have no room left in your schedule for something you know you need to do.

(Keep in mind, some youth workers like advertising the martyrs they feel they are. Don’t become a stereotype on purpose.)

Whatever you’re doing, and whichever version of a youth worker you are, there is one potential downside to all of your effort.

You may be overlooking the opportunities you have for real, generous ministry.

Uncle Leo - helloThink about the moments you remember most about different people in your life. These are the times when they either made you feel alive with encouragement or depleted with criticism. You may also remember when someone snubbed you because they were too busy to even say hello.

It’s an ironic moment in ministry when a kid walks in, and we’re busy prepping for the program. Our lack of availability seems to say, “Right now, I don’t have time to have a relationship with you… because I’m doing this other thing so I can have a relationship with you.”

So what does it look like to be generous with how you invest into the teens and preteens in your ministry?

Here are 20 things you need to tell students this week (in no particular order):

  1. generousHey… thank you for sharing the cool and random stuff from your life with me.
  2. I love you all and always look forward to this time with you.
  3. I can’t believe how many things we’ve laughed about and cried about as friends. It feels like we’re really on a journey together.
  4. I like seeing how you each listen to each other. Do you know that’s one of the ways God uses you to show one another His love?
  5. You are going to change the world somehow. You’re a leader somehow. The question is how you’ll change the world and what kind of leader you’ll allow yourself to be.
  6. I know some of you have it rough in life somehow. The fact that you come here and are looking for a deeper Story to live in is a miracle. Whether you realize it or not, that’s one of the ways God is answering the very prayers you pray.
  7. You know how we talk about those experiences from stuff that we’ve done together? Those “Remember that one time…” moments? By all means, let’s celebrate that stuff – but let’s also look for ways to let some of our newer friends form some memories with us, too.
  8. I learn something from you all just about every time we hang out.
  9. The questions you guys and gals ask? Wow. They’re amazing.
  10. Some of the things we talk about here won’t feel like they apply to your life. It’s because those nuggets aren’t for you, but if you remember them you’ll be the one to share them with your friends.
  11. Listen, I know each of you are going to blow it at some point. That won’t get in the way of our friendship. On the other hand, you also need to know that I will as a friend try to point you right back in God’s direction.
  12. If you ever need someone who will just hear what you have to say, I want to be one of those people.
  13. You will have moments that you feel weird with your parents. Don’t stop being a part of your family. You will also have moments when you feel weird with me or others here. Don’t stop being a part of church.
  14. I mean this as a legitimate compliment: You’re one of the most unique people I know. God poured some of His best work into you. Don’t ever doubt that.
  15. Some day, when you’re ready for it, I want you to ask me to sit down with you and have the most honest conversation about what I think about you. It will involve some of the best encouragement I can give you. It will also involve me talking with you with complete honesty about your blind spots, too. When we’re done with that conversation, it will be the beginning of a new friendship between us.
  16. How can I better understand your ideas and dreams? What can I do to listen to you better?
  17. There will be times that I will have your back. There will also be times that I will have your front, trying to lead you somewhere. I’ll always have your side, though – we’re on this journey together.
  18. You want to play a game? Let’s do something together by doing nothing together.
  19. One thing I really respect about you is that you’re not just putting God first in your life, but are trying to put Him first in everything. There’s a huge difference.
  20. You’re important. This group wouldn’t be the same without you. But never forget this – it would be nothing without Jesus. Any of us can leave and this will continue, but without God we’re just a church club, you know?

Jesus told His disciples that they were the light of the world. He also knew and proclaimed that He was the light of the world.


If you want your kids to shine, do it first… generously light them up.

(Maybe even share some of that with your fellow youth workers.)

Got any other good thoughts? Comment and add yours to the mix.

Thank you for loving students!



*Love Tony’s insight on service and youth ministry? Receive his articles every Tuesday when you sign up for the SYM Today Newsletter!*


It felt like I grabbed a can of Mountain Dew the moment I became a youth pastor. At first glance, it seemed like a prerequisite for ministry was a charismatic personality. Even the clarity of the Bible created some confusion, for the Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” introvert-extrovert

That’s the truth that caused me to lean into a lie. I wanted to see the people I cared about in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and assumed the only way I could do it was to become the life of the party.

I wonder how many of our students feel the same way.

Think about it: Is there a vibe that kids have to constantly bring their friends to youth group? What if they only have one really good friend who isn’t interested? How about if they don’t want to stand up and play your “stupid game”?

Time for a gut check. Does your ministry have as many on-ramps for introverts as it does for extroverts? Here are some ideas:

  • Before programs: Offer comfortable seating where quieter kids can come early, relax, or play video games. Provide set-up tasks they can help with (and give them a cool team name, like “Roadies” or “Techies”).
  • During programs: Help introverts take risks by not embarrassing them. Ask them ahead of time if they’d be willing to read Scripture, help with an object lesson, or do something significant behind the counter. Advance planning creates the runway for introverts to soar from.
  • After programs: Some introverts like to slip out fast when your program concludes. Assign at least one leader who will learn that student’s story and catch them with a simple question on a weekly basis, such as “How can I pray for you this week?”
  • On trips: Introverts may feel uncomfortable sharing a huge tent or being packed into a van with their peers. Let them bunk with their best buddy, and be sure to build in rest stops at malls, restaurants, or open areas where they can feel alone (yet always be within sight of the leaders).

Keep in mind that introverts may not fit the stereotype (and they may not want to). As I said, I became an extrovert for what I sensed were noble reasons. Even though I didn’t have the spiritual gift of evangelism I wanted to become more conversational and social in order to “do the work of an evangelist.”

How is this fleshing out in your church and youth group?

  • Do you see quieter kids “trying on” different personalities?
  • Has your personality (or someone else’s) become the “right” one to have?
  • Is there any kind of expectation that people have to become someone they’re not in order to communicate who Jesus is?


What other things should we think about when it comes to serving students who may fall more into this category? For example, is it possible to swing too far toward introverts? I’ve seen a fair share of “postmodern” environments where all the contemplative prayers and incense make the extroverts run out the door to play dodgeball. I’ve even wanted to join them.

Share your thoughts, and thank you for loving students!

- Tony

Can we try it again?

Last week we had a great dialogue on the topic of gay youth, the Boy Scouts of America.and a new alternative called Trail Life USA. The ground rules were simple -

“Let’s see if we can keep this respectable and God-honoring. Remember, the eternities of students are on the line.”

The goal here isn’t a debate on homosexuality, but on what it means to be a youth worker in the trenches of this ongoing topic. Whether or not you have a student in your ministry who is actively walking in this tension, your teens likely know someone who is.

On that note, I’d like to share a link my friend Darren Sutton passed along. His comments under the headline were “Wow. Courageous and unexpected.”

My curiosity peaked immediately.


Especially when I saw the headline: Gay, Catholic and Doing Fine.”

You really need to read the whole article, although I will offer two quotes here:

I have heard a lot about how mean the Church is, and how bigoted, because she opposes gay marriage. How badly she misunderstands gay people, and how hostile she is towards us. My gut reaction to such things is: Are you freaking kidding me? Are we even talking about the same Church?

Actually, the only time I get shock or disgust or disbelief, the only time I’ve noticed people treating me differently after I tell them, is when I tell someone who supports the gay lifestyle. Celibacy?! You must be some kind of freak.

I’d like to again raise some questions in the vibe of what I did last week. For example:

  • How do you feel about this young man taking the approach of celibacy for the sake of his walk with God? In his words: “So, yes, it’s hard to be gay and Catholic — it’s hard to be anything and Catholic — because I don’t always get to do what I want. Show me a religion where you always get to do what you want and I’ll show you a pretty shabby, lazy religion. Something not worth living or dying for, or even getting up in the morning for. That might be the kind of world John Lennon wanted, but John Lennon was kind of an idiot.”
  • Is it healthy to loop “Catholic” and “gay” together? Hear me out on this – I don’t want this to become a word study of 1 Corinthians 6:9, but perhaps we do need to nod to 1 Corinthians 6:11 as we consider the implications for youth ministry. That verse comes after a number of things the Bible lists as sins, adding (emphasis mine), “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”So if your church or denomination takes a stance on something, might it confuse youth to say, “You can be a ___________ and a (Catholic/Methodist/Baptist/etc).” Is that one step away from “You can be a ____________ and a Christ-follower?” Should the target instead be, “Receive Christ. Embrace your new identity and Story. Your sin nature no longer has reign over you, and the Holy Spirit will help you face the temptations for sins that will still swarm in on you.”
  • Honesty time – how much of your first reaction to those last two questions was filtered through your personal view on this topic versus your willingness to walk into the grace and holiness of God? No, really… how much? Is it possible more people know your personal platform on this topic more than they do your walk with the Lord? Maybe we need to take a cue from the person who wrote the blog.

Quick tip – before you hit reply, sift through that last question a bit and remember the ground rules for our discussion here. This isn’t a post about homosexuality, but about how we minister to where students may fall on this as they process it all. Try to share Jesus and not your platform. Thanks!


I once remember a friend of mine asking, “If you set up your youth group that way, what will make students have a desire to invite their friends?”  He was speaking of the fact that the focus on our ministry was to be “relationally driven.”  Sure we all talk about “discipleship” and “relationships,” however,  I started to see I did just that.  I talked about them, but I didn’t really have them. I played games for the sake of fun.  I sang worship songs because that’s  ”what you do.”  The trouble was I’m not musical, and I didn’t have any students or volunteers who were either. I followed all the unwritten rules of the youth group formula.  They weren’t working for me or my students.

I stepped back and looked at Christ’s model.  He preached to the crowds, touched and healed a few, but the majority of His time was spent pouring into 12 guys, with 3 getting special attention.  If Jesus was focused on eating, sleeping and teaching mainly 12 with a focus on 3,  then that was the model I would follow.

Here’s what I did:

1.  Listened

I started with brainstorming with my students about what they were looking for in “youth group.”  Some of them liked to sing, others hated it.  What they wanted was a place to seek truth, with authentic people who would become a second family to them.

2.  Restructured

Before I programmed ANYTHING I asked,  “How will this build relationships?”  So just to move to a small group model for the sake of having them wasn’t going to work. Instead of getting through a series of questions or pushing through a curriculum, the goal was to include every student in every conversation.  What were the students able to take away with them? Could they apply at least one point the moment they walked out the door? Our opening time became much shorter.  If we did play a game, or have an object lesson, it was all about building relationships with each other or for the purpose of making a point that would be discussed in small groups.

3.  Training

Many volunteers would ask me, “What do I have in common with this age?”  So I started training my team in first steps to conversations,  how to engage, how to not talk “at students” but with them, and how to deal with disruptions. These trainings are ongoing. I gave clear expectations of where we were headed, and what they needed to do to keep up with students. There were checklists for calling, texting and spending time with students not just during “youth group.”

4. Included

One of the key elements was including volunteers and teens in our new model.  We decided that an opening time of welcoming was needed. We allowed teens (with guidance) to plan and execute this time. In a practical sense this means that this time changes year to year as we have different students and adults in the mix.  There have been dramas, worship, and video clips in that time to bring the message. The students are allowed to make this time theirs.

So I lied we do play games, but not every week. Students always shock me when they do use the word “fun” to describe our time together.  I guess it’s because we laugh, and talk and go deep, but it’s not usually silly programming.  Our method draws out the introverts and lets everyone engage.  Yes, we even eat pizza together, take trips, and have outreach events however, all of this is done with that simple question, “If we do this , how will it build relationships?” AND THEY DO INVITE THEIR FRIENDS,,,

What about you?  What are YOU doing to build relationships with your students?