I suppose there are a jillion ways to communicate to students in your youth ministry these days – more than ever there are a plethora of choices through traditional channels (like handouts and announcements) and new media (YouTube, Facebook and SMS). Then there’s the stuff that was critically important a few years ago and is still hanging around (an actual website).

In the past few years, we’ve fully embraced SMS as our primary method of communicating with students. By the time they get to high school, most all have phones and a overwhelming percentage have texting plans. We recently made a significant shift in text message providers, and thought that if either one of these might fit your needs you should check them out:

For the last 2 years, we’ve used Simply Text. Simply Text is a powerful tool to help you communicate using SMS. Here’s a rundown of the pluses and minuses after using it for a long time.

+Super easy to use
The interface is easy, you can literally go from nothing to sending out texts in minutes. The free trial lets you see it all and make sure you are technical enough to figure it out. Easy, easy.

+You can read replies
A new feature added as we used the system allowed you to see the “message stream” or the replies that come into your account. You can easily reply to individual texts.

+Dirt cheap
The average youth ministry will be spending $10 a month on the system, which is pretty nominal considering what you’re getting. Quick, slick, cheap.

-Fairly reliable
The system works well – you can literally push send and your phone will light up in 10 seconds with your mass message. In the backend, it actually is sending an email that comes through your phone as a text. It works in most cases, but if you have the carrier wrong it fails. For the most part, it works as advertised, as long as your data has integrity.

+/-Difficult to subscribe/unsubscribe
One of the downsides is that you have to a) manually add people, b) get them to manually add themselves on a website, and c) monitor the message stream for unsubscribe requests. UPDATE: The system has been upgraded over the past few months and it is now much easier to remove yourself from a list.

A few months back, we began to outgrow the Simply Text system and as texting became more and more primary (and eventually one of the only ways we communicate with students) we needed a tool that would grow with us and be highly reliable. After a ton of research, we went with Duffled.com. Here’s what they offer in a nutshell:

+Subscribe by texting
This is a HUGE game-changer. See the message on a poster, on a handout or on the screen and you can pull out your phone and immediately subscribe. We get new subscribers without doing a thing. Boom. Same thing – when a kid graduates – they remove themselves. If a parent wants in – simple.

+Students can send in keywords and get automatic replies
This is a big upgrade, too – when a student wants more information on something they text 39970 with “hsm baptism” or “hsm serve” and get specific instructions, dates, times or directions. We set up unlimited keywords, with whatever information we want to be sent out by SMS robot. Brilliant!

+Guaranteed delivery
Duffled is actually sending an SMS text message – so arrival is pristine and quick. It costs more for the system to do this, but it is highly reliable and stable platform to communicate with confidence.

-Decent interface
The actual user-interface with Duffled is completely functional, but doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. If they overhauled the face of it, it would be a huge improvement. Still though, it gets the job done but sure isn’t sexy.

-It costs for each text you send out
The big downside is that in this case you get what you pay for – which means a better system costs more money. We are biting the bullet and paying a significant amount more each month.

Either way it might be a good idea to think about all of the methods of communication available between you and students, and decide as a team which one(s) you’re going to get behind.

UPDATE: After a ton of feedback on this post (Tweets and RTs, too – thanks, all!) I thought a summary might be helpful:

For the bang for your buck, Simply TXT simply can’t be beat. Cheap, simple, straightforward and solid. For 99% of youth ministries, this is an essential tool to communicate with your students. It doesn’t have all the higher-end specs you might find from other platforms, but is consistently improving and is more than adequate for most uses. If you’re larger ministry and/or looking to really leverage texting, Duffled might be your answer. The ability to send automatic replies opens up a lot of possibilities, and the system while requiring a significant investment, is solid.

Either way, I hope this post helps you ask some good questions about communicating to your students and gives you some good options to consider as you head toward your student ministry’s fall kickoff weekend.

JG

Funny little game we played this weekend in HSM – guess which contestant would eat the deep fried butter at the OC Fair the fastest. Ha!

JG



Weekend Teaching Series: 5 Ways to Be Awesome: A study through the book of James
Sermon in a Sentence: Our lives should be lived in submission and humility to Christ. James 4
Service Length: 82 minutes

Understandable Message: Robby Boyd from the HSM team taught the services this weekend – he normally heads up our counseling and pastoral care emphasis. Robby led students on a journey through the verses of James 4, covering each verse in a survey of the chapter. The main thought centered around narcissism and how a self-centered life is dangerous and leaves us open for sin. Good stuff – especially liked his story and illustration about Narcissus.

Element of Fun/Positive Environment: We created a couple of fun games during a staff trip to the OC fair – students had to guess 1) who (of the 3 people on the screen) would eat the deep fried butter the fastest, and 2) how long it would take for AC to eat a Krispy Kreme spicy chicken sandwich. Fun stuff, not sure we really had it dialed in until the last service but it was fun either way. We also had a video highlighting students that served in a big community project this past week – good stuff, and a great segway to promote this week’s service project, too.

Music Playlist: You Deserve, Our God, It Is Well With My Soul, Thank You for Loving Me

Favorite Moment: This weekend I was reminded of how important other voices are in our student ministry. Robby (and Phil the week before when I was on vacation) bring a whole new energy and style to their talk. Still God’s Word, still God’s Spirit, but communicated through the personalities he has placed in the leadership of our student ministry. Reminded me of an old post I wrote called 5 Reasons You Should Let Someone Else Teach Next Weekend.

Up Next: 5 Ways to be Awesome [series finale, week 5 of 5]

Really enjoyed this post about preparing a youth ministry lesson over at YouthMinistry360 today. Here’s a clip of it, head there for the complete post to maybe share with your volunteers:

Prayer Is Foundational–When we incorporate prayer as a part of our preparation, we align ourselves with God’s agenda. We open ourselves up to the leading of the Spirit and what He desires to accomplish in our students. Also, I find prayer helps me realize that for the lesson to be effective, it needs to be about the Lord and not about me.

Your Curriculum Is Just A Starting Point–The best curriculum is nothing but a stepping stone to a good lesson. Like buying a suit off the rack of a department store, for it to work, it must be tailored. You know your students better than the men and/or women who wrote the particular lesson you are using. To be effective, you’ll need to tailor each lesson to your group.

Good Study Helps Are Key–Good commentaries and Study Bibles are extremely important to your prep. If you’re a teacher, you owe it to your students to invest in some of these resources. I’ve been doing this for a long time and have amassed a pretty impressive collection of resources. HOWEVER, the best single volume study resource I have seen is the ESV Study Bible. It’s simply a wealth of information. (It also comes with a free online version.) It has become the first step in my preparation. It’s that good. I could not recommend it highly enough.

Keep It Simple–It’s rarely ever a good idea to teach more than one key point in a lesson. Prepare to teach one essential truth from any passage. Doing otherwise works against helping students apply the truth.

JG



When was the last time you looked at your youth service through the lens of a first time guest? Or have you wondered, “Why don’t our students bring their friends to church?”

It seems like God sends more new people to churches that are prepared for them. We can’t expect our students to bring their friends if we’re not doing our part to create a program that is inviting and welcoming. So the question is, “What are you doing to make their visit memorable?”

At some point, we’ve all wondered why new students aren’t coming back. And most often, it is because we aren’t doing anything intentional to help them get beyond the first visit. It’s not good enough to just say, “Hey, thanks for visiting us. See ya around!” And it’s not enough to simply pray that God will magically bring them back.

One of the great things about being a Christian is that we work WITH God. That means, we do our part and He does His.

So, here are a few things we’ve done to make that first time visit one to remember:

1. GIFTS GALORE — we have MULTIPLE touch points for the 1st timer. We give them a free energy drink and free bible (I found some inexpensive and SWEET bibles here.) We want new students to know that we were expecting them to show up. And nothing says that better than giving them a gift right on the spot! Secondly, we send them a handwritten postcard with a $5 Starbucks card 3 days after their visit. And by “WE”, I mean the students of our ministry write these and mail them out. Most of us youth pastors are too old to be cool so it’s much better to give our students some ownership of their ministry.

Some might say we’re shallow or that these are gimmicks and that’s okay. Wouldn’t you rather get made fun of than lead a youth ministry that is filled with a bunch of people that only care about themselves and don’t care about the mission of Jesus…to reach the lost?

2. COMM CARDS — communication cards, connection cards, info cards…it doesn’t matter what you call them. Here’s the million $$$ question: are you capturing the information of guests? Most youth pastors give-up on this idea because “it’s cheesy” or “I can’t read their writing” or “they won’t fill it out anyways”. And all of these are LAME excuses to not have a system to follow-up with your students.

We have a set time (45 seconds) where every single student grabs their COMM card and fills that bad boy out. We’ve learned that students won’t fill it out unless everyone else is doing it, too. So, the only way to get them all to do it was to set aside some specific time for this. It may sound like a lame part of our service, but there are ways to make it feel natural.

And guess what? It makes it a lot easier to send them a Starbucks card when we have their address. Crazy idea, huh?

3. MINGLERS — we have a student greeting team called “Minglers” that helps us create a program where “no one should be left out”. It’s virtually impossible for someone to walk in without getting a “hello, how’s it going” in our ministry. If you don’t have a team doing this yet, DO IT NOW! It’s very unlikely that your students will ever start welcoming new students if there isn’t an intentional team modeling this every week.

Phrase to remember: If everyone is responsible, NO ONE is responsible. So, get it going so that your youth ministry isn’t known as “the jerks that didn’t even say hi” in your city.

There are a couple ideas to put into action in your ministry. You might have something you already do and that is awesome! Just don’t be one of those youth pastors that has an excuse for everything you know you should be implementing. God wants your youth program to REACHand KEEP students beyond their first visit.

SO, what are YOU doing to intentionally make the 1st time visit one to remember?

Gary is one of the people behind http://moveministries.blogspot.com/ and serves as the Student Ministries Pastor at High Pointe Church in Puyallup, WA. Feel free to send him an e-mail for some FREE 1st time visitor resources, too.

Weekend Teaching Series: 5 Ways to Be Awesome: A study through the book of James
Sermon in a Sentence: Faith and good works – that a life of service, ministry and good deeds flows from the heart of a follower of Jesus. James 2:14-20
Service Length: 66 minutes

Understandable Message: This weekend the talk was built around the section of James 2 where he talks about good works flowing from a life of faith. How that faith is dead without evidence of a changed life in our actions and outlook. We looked at the roadblocks of why we choose not to serve (outright selfishness was my admission) and offered students several practical ways to get involved in serving in HSM and outside the church walls in the community.

Element of Fun/Positive Environment: We played a simple game where we hit inflatable balls into the audience and whoever caught them won a small prize. LeJon James (our intern Jon Varner) came out and signed and autographed poster of LeBron James for one of the winners. We also played a quick round of Total Recall, where we ask them tough questions about a movie clip we play on the screen, featuring a funny clip from Toy Story 3.

Music Playlist: Yours Forever, Savior of the World, Overcome, The Stand

Favorite Moment: This weekend my favorite moment was talking to a few students after the service. In the talk I said that I would dedicate and theme an entire wall in The Refinery to the students who took the biggest leap and succeeded in serving others. There were some great ideas – I’m excited to see what students come up with in the coming months to serve others!

Up Next: 5 Ways to be Awesome [week 3 of 5, Kurt Johnston speaking since I'm on vacation]



Weekend Teaching Series: 5 Ways to Be Awesome: A study through the book of James (series premiere)
Sermon in a Sentence: Troubles are a part of life, but instead of them beating you down trust God to help you through them and shape you into the person He wants you to become. James 1:1-6
Service Length: 61 minutes

Understandable Message: This week we were literally coming off the bus from camp and straight into our four weekend services. The message series has been planned for quite and while and we’ve had multiple sermon/series student brainstorming meetings about it, but it all came together Saturday morning. Prepping so late is dangerous (not my usual style, I promise!) but God really used His Word to speak to hearts this weekend. We talked about troubles, trials and temptations that we’ll face as we follow Jesus. We had a student from camp (Nicole) share her story filled with problems and trials, and she shared how she trusted Jesus this week and was baptized in the ocean as well. So great!

Element of Fun/Positive Environment: This week we had some fun playing a game we invented called “Name that James” where we put up a picture of a famous James (or Jim, Jimmy) and contestants rang in and accumulated points. Simple fun, winners got a tube of Slim Jims and the section they represented in the crowd got a candy shower.

Music Playlist: Rise and Sing, Love Came Down, Burning Ones, The Earth is Yours

Favorite Moment: This week at camp we asked students to write down their camp committments and decisions on multi-colored 3×5 cards. We collected all of the cards at camp and surprised students by having them made into a huge mosaic on stage. I tied it into the talk by reflecting on some of the students’ decisions and how they’ll be tested in the days and weeks ahead. Oh, and DubStep.

Up Next: 5 Ways to be Awesome [week 2 of 5]

Weekend Teaching Series: Trinity (series finale, week 3 of 3)
Sermon in a Sentence: A focus on the 3rd person of the Trinity (3 Persons = 1 God).
Service Length: 75 minutes

Understandable Message: This weekend’s message focused on the 3rd person of the Trinity: God the Spirit. We’ve taught about him before, but it was fun to do a message on who He is and what is the significance of Him in our lives as followers of Jesus. The main passage was from Galatians 5. We talked about the Holy Spirit regenerating, guiding, correcting and sealing believers. As always, teaching theological depth to an entry-level crowd is one of the biggest challenges – in addition to a short week of prep because we were getting ready for HSM Summer Camp and coming off a sweet staff retreat.

Element of Fun/Positive Environment: This whole series we’ve done Minute to Win It games, and this week we enjoyed another simple but fun game. We played a clip from Kung Fu Panda (a part to illustrate the Spirit) and Filled with the Spirit – one of Jake’s classic music videos gave the service a strong start.

Music Playlist: You’ll Come, King of All Days, Consuming Fire, Our God, You Are Here

Favorite Moment: At the end of the message I challenged students to nail their sins to the cross and be filled with the Spirit. We had a cross on stage and invited students down to write their confessions and sins on paper and attach them to the cross. The idea was to help them make the first step in dealing with their sin and the nature that is in opposition to the Spirit. Really powerful ending to the talk – and going through them all after each service was really powerful/insightful, too.

Up Next: 5 Ways to be Awesome (a study through James) [week 1 of 5]