Balancing Act

By Rick Bundschuh • Kauai Christian Fellowship • Poipu, Hawaii

Early in my youth ministry career, I used to get a little guilty as I drove off for a couple hours of surfing in the morning. On the way to the beach I would pass all the suited up businessmen, harried moms with school kids in the van, and everybody else who lived a “normal” life. I’d paddled out to sit in the line up with waiters, beach bums, retired old guys and a few guys supposedly on disability leave.

You see, my day started much later than most people’s and came to a fever pitch once the end-of-school bell rang. Dragging into the house at 10pm or later was common many days of the week. Most of the other guys on the church staff showed up to their desk around 8:30 in the morning. I stumbled in after lunch, maybe — unless I was running around with a pack of kids.

Going surfing in the morning was — and still is — a way that I balance my life. So, I don’t feel guilty anymore. The idea of sitting down to a nice relaxing family meal five or six nights a week was foreign to me. The more common scenario was to horse down something quick, kiss the kids goodnight (’cause I wasn’t going to tuck them into bed) and bolting for the door. And this was on the lucky nights when I wasn’t out on the road picking up kids.

But, I was there at lunch. Even when they went to school, I could show up and have lunch with my kids. Not too many other dads could pull that one off.

I worked hard and put in lots of hours when students were available; I made up for all those hours when students were in seasons where they were busy. Even to this day, I barely work almost the whole month of December. My kids think this is normal. This is just the balance of family and ministry.

Doing youth work well is all about balancing the various things in life and ministry. In fact, I’ve found that, because of all the various elements that most youth workers must deal with, the ability to handle the spinning plate balancing act without losing any of the fine china is often the difference between burning out of youth ministry and having a nice long run.

  • It is about balancing wife, kids, and ministry.
  • It is about balancing the need to have a private adult life with the public mania that comes with knowing every kid in the mall.
  • It is about going after the unwashed kids in the neighborhood without losing the church kids.
  • It is about loving and serving the geeks as well as the jocks.
  • It is about having the cutting edge renegade sassiness that brings fun to the church community and at the same time being able to carry on a meaningful conversation with Mrs. Methuselah.
  • It is about knowing when to control the kids and when to let them go nuts.
  • It is about figuring out how much abuse one should expect the church van to suffer, and when to strap all the kids onto the roof rack.
  • It is about being able to have fun, and to have impact.
  • It is about knowing what about your ministry to tell the congregation and what to keep quiet about. (Wiping the four letter words written in shaving cream off the bathroom mirror would be one of those adventures not worth mentioning.)
  • It is about having to be tough and loving at the same time.
  • It is about having the trust of the kids, but being an advocate of the parents as well.

Balance is not always easy. We often let the demands of the squeaky wheel, the whims of our emotions, or unrealistic expectations tilt us. Balance means learning to say “No.” “No, I won’t take on the college-age class as well as the youth ministry.” “No, we won’t be coming to Saturday morning mens prayer breakfast because we will be playing paintball with a bunch of ruffians.”

Balance also means learning to say “Yes!” “Yes, I think we can find a night to be part of a small group even if it means I will be out five of seven nights most weeks.” “Yes, I will try to find some high school girls to babysit for the women’s ministry — and yes, I will ask them to ‘do it as unto the Lord’.” (But I hope the Lord is planning on at least tipping them.)

Dig in your heels and refuse to meet in the middle. Go overboard on one thing or another while neglecting other vital areas of youth ministry and you won’t last long. But learn balance, negotiation, the art of win/win, and the skill of an ecclesiastical shortstop — and my guess is that your career in youth ministry will not only be long and fruitful, you will enjoy the heck out of it.

Photo credit: © Dwphotos |

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Wisecracking Wiseguys

Through the wonder of technology, we were able to assemble this star-studded cast of Christian funny people – err, funny people who are Christians… umm, Christians who make people laugh. But they weren’t in the same room at the same time. Amazing! So listen in as we try to stump them with thought-provoking questions that are sure to generate some awesome conversation.

TH = Tim Hawkins
MJ = Michael Jr.
T = Tommy and E = Eddie (The Skit Guys)
TWP = Team WordPlay (Chris and Ryan)

What lets you know that a particular “concert” is gonna be a good one?

TH      When people know who I am. That’s always a plus. It beats all those banquets I’ve performed at where I’ve had to prove I’m more interesting than lasagna and cheesecake.

T         I guess it would depend on what kinda music you like. I’m fond of mostly 80’s music so I know it’s gonna be good if it’s REO Speed Wagon or Journey. Oh, and TobyMac – ’cause I’m a Christian.

E         When the seats are all filled up, there’s been somewhat of a line that has been waiting, and then the anticipation is at fever pitch. You step onstage and you can do no wrong. That’s a good one. Our videos have really helped propel our “live” shows. People watch these videos and they want to see us live. It’s as if we’ve developed a relationship before we get to town.

T         Ed, I think you misunderstood the question.

TWP   There are so many factors that come into play. But it’s usually not about numbers of people, but how they are situated. Like cold sores, comedy is contagious, and the closer people are packed together, the more the laughs seem to come. Also if, at the appropriate time, the host holds up the “LAUGH NOW!” signs we always ship ahead, that usually helps.

MJ      Most of the time if there is praise and worship beforehand, it is always a good one. And if people are laughing before I hit the stage. And if people are laughing during the show. And if they are laughing after the show. And if I get my money. And if the check clears.

At the end of the evening, when you’re back in your room or in your car headed home, what makes you think, “Whoa! That was GREAT!”?

TH      I don’t need to think it. I’ve actually hired a guy who sits in the car and says, “Whoa! That was great!” It’s just how I like to do it.

T         When I’m standing in the mirror sporting my Styx concert shirt. I usually think, “Whoa!  That was great!”

E         After one of our shows, we almost always stay and sign stuff and take pictures with people. That’s when the audience shares their stories – stories of how a particular skit, a certain phrase or sentence touched them or helped them through a difficult time. Again, it’s the relationship we have with these wonderful folks from city to city that makes it great.

T         Seriously – who came up with these questions? They are confusing!

TWP   We love having time to interact with the audience, not only during the show, but especially afterwards. Nothing makes us happier than when students come up to us and say, “I never thought about my Christian life in that way, but your sketch really made me think.” Also when the youth pastors tell us that the kids stayed up all night talking about whatever we spoke on that session. We love torturing the youth pastors.

MJ      People’s stories about how they really needed laughter at that particular time really blesses me on the ride home, at my hotel room, and beyond.

“Christian Comedy” can be kind of like “Grape Nuts” – which is neither grapes nor nuts. What makes your comedy “Christian”?

MJ      I don’t know; you tell me.

TH      I kiss my finger and point to heaven after a joke goes well.

E         There’s a definite message. It’s normally a “Christian” message. Our goal is not to be cheesy. We make no apologies about being “Christian”– we want it to be some of the best “Christian” stuff they’ve seen.

T         Christian audiences don’t expect much. Sad to say, but it seems that the bar has been lowered when it comes to comedy and expectations in church.

E         For too long, Christians have played it safe way too much when it comes to comedy. We try to have someone sitting out in an audience or in front of their computer to go, “I wasn’t expecting that!” Sometimes that’s the best compliment.

T         We are Christians who do comedy. So that makes it Christian comedy by default. Much like jumbo shrimp is both large and small because it’s – never mind. That analogy didn’t work.

TWP   Our comedy is Christian because we really don’t do anything in our act that is not designed to bring students into a closer relationship with their Creator. Laughter for the sake of laughter is great and there’s a little of that if we do an improv comedy concert but if, at the end of the day, we just made kids laugh and didn’t encourage them to grow closer to Christ, I think we’ve done them (and our ministry) a disservice.

Read the complete Wise-Cracking Wiseguys interview and get all the other humor-themed resources (from Tim Hawkins, Michael Jr, Skit Guys) in the new Youth Leaders Only Digital Box!

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Mark Hall on why music matters

Casting Crowns has had an enormous impact on Christian music. We love their music, but what we love even more is their passion for students. Lead singer Mark Hall and other band members are actively involved in the student ministries in their local churches; they’ve made it a priority to invest in the lives of students.

Mark is a long time friend of interlinc, as well as a Youth Leaders Only member. Here’s what he said when we asked him why he uses YLO:

“We know how important music is in a teenager’s life. Their music’s either urging them toward the life they’re trying to live or it’s dragging them back toward the life they’re trying to leave. So my conviction is, if a youth leader can show students that Christian music has totally caught up culturally and encourage students to give their music to God and to let Christian music be what they go to for their entertainment as well as for their growth, it will change everything about them. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have all different styles of music available, which most of us don’t. To me, YLO has been a great resource to find out what Christian music is out there that I might not find on my own. And, with YLO, I get to hear the heart of the band and what they’re about. YLO has definitely been a great tool for us.”

Mark understands that the 9+ hours each day that students spend with music and media can be a positive thing … if they’ve been introduced to great Christian music and artists.

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Why The Mess?

Guest post by Rick Bundschuh from Kauai Christian Fellowship

Editor’s Note: Rick is one of the coolest lunatics you’ll ever meet. We are proud to have him as a member of Team Interlínc, and as one of our WriteGroup contributors. His video of their Middle School retreat (you can see it here) is what prompted us to ask him to explain, “Why all the mess?” You’ll no doubt identify with his explanation!

I walked into the big room used by the Middle School every Wednesday night. There were feathers everywhere. There were feathers in the light fixtures, feathers on the shelves, feathers piled in the corners and feathers in the window screens. My first thought was, “It sure looks like someone (other than a goose or chicken) was having a load of fun!”

A certain part of youth ministry gets messy because messy means more fun.

Tie a donut on a string and have a contest to see who can eat it first. This could make a lot of crumbs, but it is really not all that messy. Take the same donut; dip it in chocolate syrup, and feed it to a partner lying on the floor and you now have “messy” with a capital M.

Our YLO Members get all the “Messy Middle School” articles and tons more! Join us as a YLO Member!

The messy factor is what turns an okay stunt or game into something that kids talk about for a long time and one that they tell their friends about.

Of course messy doesn’t attract prissy girls or too cool guys—but it sure works great with the average Middle School monkey.

  • Getting messy is what mom won’t let you do at home, which makes it even more fun.
  • Getting a girl messy is the way that a Middle School guy shows affection.
  • Getting your friend messy is the way that you show brotherly love—in Middle School terms that is.
  • Getting messy makes for great movies, photos, and publicity on social media.
  • Getting messy makes for lots of laughter and even more mess.

Messy is part of the message that says to kids, “Hey, this Christian thing is wild, fun, and exciting!” It wins us the right to talk about the “abundant life” with credibility because, for a Middle School kid, the more mess you make, the more abundant life truly is!

And yes, messy can have some downsides. Someone has to clean up all that mess. Shaving crème stings the eyes. The chocolate handprints your cleaning crew missed will come back to haunt you in the form of a scolding by the non-messy lady from the Women’s ministry. A few killjoys may make noise about bad stewardship in the waste of noodles, feathers, shaving crème, cooking oil, etc. Or, you may have to get out the vacuum and go after the feathers that your cleaning crew didn’t see in their hurry to suck up eight pillowcases worth of down.

But messy is one of those things that adults have generally grown out of. We have forgotten the pure joy of rolling in mud, being lathered in a bath of Jello, or getting a pie in the face. We would never think of bobbing for Baby Ruth bars in a toilet filled with Mountain Dew, or rediscover the missile launching pleasure of a good old fashion food fight.

And in a way, that’s too bad.

But, making a mess in the name of Jesus is what we in youth work are called to do. Many of us take great pride in our, mess, uh, err, work!

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We’ve Gotta Start Taking Humor More Seriously!

By Doug Hutchcraft• The Doug and Jon Show •

Psalm 126:2 and Job 8:21 directly link laughter as a result of God’s blessing. Even so, humor sometimes gets a bad rap in church and ministry circles because we’ve seen it used so many times in ways that don’t glorify God. When utilized within God’s boundaries though (see Ephesians 5:4 to read how much God doesn’t laugh at bathroom humor), laughter is simply too great of a gift and too powerful a communication weapon to not harness for God’s glory.

Laughter is one of God’s greatest creations.
Used creatively and effectively, it can attract people from all walks of life to His truth and ultimately, the Gospel. I’ve seen God at work through humor firsthand. It’s one of the reasons more than 30,000 young people from 90 countries have prayed to receive Christ on It’s a primary reason 115,000 Facebook fans keep us in their news feeds. Yes, we share the Gospel – but we win a young person’s trust first by sharing some laughs.

Laughs break the ice.
When communicating, in some cases you’ve got maybe 30 seconds before a person, especially a young person, decides whether they relate to you and will listen to what you have to say. When you start a conversation with a shared laugh, you can break down invisible walls in an instant.

Laughs change negative perceptions.
We live in a world full of people that believe Christians are all Mr. and Mrs. Judge-ingtons. Their perception is we want to yell at them because they have sin in their lives. One shared laugh at our own shortcomings can communicate we’re not all the sticks in the mud they perceive us to be.

Get this and all the THEME ARTICLES in Youth Leaders Only.

Laughs can help effectively communicate hard truths.
Recently I taught at a church from Proverbs 4:23 on guarding your heart. I used a funny illustration about how there’s a stretch on Interstate 40 in Texas that assaults your nasal cavity because of all the cow farms in the community. Somehow though, the folks that live there don’t smell it because they’re used to it. From there I turned the corner into Christians not being able to “smell” the kind of entertainment that is offensive to God because we’re so accustomed to it. I call communicating hard truths this way as “putting velvet on a brick.” You don’t water down the hard truth — but you get people thinking about it on a deeper level because you delivered it in an entertaining and unexpected way.

Not every truth in God’s Word is appropriate to illustrate with humor, but it’s wise to consider utilizing humor in ones where it works. So laugh a little, and invite others to crack up with you! It’ll bring a bright spot into their day, and it might even give them a glimpse into the joy that comes from following such a great Savior.

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By Ken McCoy • JumpStart Ministries • Charlotte, North Carolina

I wish I would have known what to look for.

The phone’s ringing woke me from a deep sleep. Jeannie answered it and mumbled, “Yes, he’s here,” and handed the phone to me. A quick glance at the clock told me that this call would be bad news. I was right.

One of the kids in our youth ministry had used a shotgun to end his life.

What happened in the next few hours and over the course of the next several weeks seems as though it all happened in a dream. I went to the home, not knowing what I could do to help. My youth ministry partner came too – together we consoled, prayed, and cried with the parents. Once the body had been taken away, we did the gruesome task of cleaning the bedroom.

The whole experience discombobulated me. I was in over my head, and I knew it.

I wasn’t the only one affected. The whole ministry felt out of whack. Kids, parents, board members, school personnel, and pastors had to come to grips with what had happened, what could have been done to prevent it, and what we would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Since you work with teenagers, you’ll encounter hurt kids and you will experience tragedy. I’m not sure you and I can be adequately prepared to handle any crises or situation – after all, we’re youth leaders, not social workers or counselors. We need resources we can turn to during those difficult times to keep from being too discombobulated.

Where to Turn
If you’re a youth leader, you WILL encounter crisis situations. When they happen, you’ll need to know where to turn. Here are some of the very best resources for youth leaders dealing with hurt kids and crisis situations. Keep this list handy for when you need to know where to turn.

For KING & COUNTRY’s Music Video “God Only Knows” + Group Session are powerful resources to help your kids process the soaring suicide world they live in.


  • If you are in crisis, need immediate help, or facing a potentially life-threatening emergency, call 911
  • Critical Incident Response– This coalition of crisis responders coordinates specialized training and resources to help prepare youth workers and local Networks to meet needs when crises strike, such as a teenage suicide, fatal car accident, school shooting, or other trauma. Four levels of involvement and training can be found at


  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline– If you or someone you know is considering suicide, do not wait to get help. Take the concern seriously and call 800-273-TALKto talk to someone who cares. Go to
  • The HopeLine– Longtime youth minister and well-known youth communicator Dawson McAllister offers help to teens struggling with critical life issues and who may be considering self-harm or suicide. Call 1-800-394-HOPE(4673) to talk with a Hope Coach, or communicate by chat or text. Point your web browser to
  • Groundwire– Need to talk? Chat now with a spiritual coach. Coaches are available to listen and offer spiritual advice, encouragement, resources, and prayer. Get online with them at


  • To Write Love On Her Arms– TWLOHA is a movement dedicated to hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. Find help online at
  • A.F.E. ALTERNATIVES– This is a nationally recognized treatment approach, professional network and educational resource base committed to helping you and others end to self-abusive behavior. Link to

Substance Abuse

  • Teen Challenge– Faith-based help and healing for those facing drug addiction and life-controlling problems. Teen Challenge has centers located in 70 different countries. Their online presence is at
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What Makes a Funny Guy Funny?

By Rick Bundschuh • Kauai Christian Fellowship • Poipu, Hawaii

Tim was almost invisible as he loitered around my living room. His kids, his wife, brother, and other family members were mostly talkative and boisterous as we gathered for a big Hawaiian-style BBQ.

I found his reserved actions interesting.

Most of my humorous friends could never turn off the clowning – heck they would even try to crack a joke after a funeral just because they used laughter to deal with most every situation, even the awkward ones. But Tim, while warm, was pulled in and not particularly witty. Certainly, in person, he is not the elastic wisecracking maniac one sees on stage.

As you can tell, I was studying him. It is what we writer-types do. Little did I know that Tim was studying us, too.

He noticed my wife’s innate shyness. He noticed the omnipresent chickens that ran across our lawn (a plague to our island home that occurred when a hurricane ripped up chicken coops and blew their former inhabitants all over creation.) He studied patterns of speech and the little idiosyncrasies that most others miss. His mind was collecting, categorizing, and twisting everything that he was quietly gathering.

And few days later he used every single one of those quirks, mixing sidesplitting parodies of local people and observations into the standard shtick of his comedy routine. And finally, at the end of his performance, hot and dripping with sweat from hilarious acrobatics, he brought down the house by lifting my shy, diminutive, and horrified wife three feet off the ground in a giant bear hug as she tried to put a lei on him.

Heh, heh, heh! That stinker!

Tim Hawkins has exploded on the comedy scene with dizzying success. From humble beginnings in St. Louis, he has commandeered a network of relatives to help manage what seems to be an insatiable demand for the antics of this former warehouse worker. What is it about the Hawkins style of humor that grabs at the funny bone of kids as well as adults?

Well, it’s complicated. Adults, and particularly Christians who are okay with laughing at our own peculiarities, love his wit and sly satire. Kids love his goofy rewriting of rock songs, his rubbery face making, the occasional scatological reference, and (of course) his famous silly stage prancing.

“I don’t connect all that well with college-age students,” Tim told me, “A lot of my stuff is about life that they haven’t experienced yet.”

Many college students in tears of laughter would beg to differ.

In the end, Tim is hilarious because he touches the experience of the average Walmart shopping, used-car driving, church going, iPod toting believer – young or old.

Get all the other humor-themed articles (from Tim Hawkins, Michael Jr, Skit Guys) in the new Youth Leaders Only Digital Box!

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I See Naked People

This is an excerpt of a chapter from Rick Bundschuh’s very-cool book for rising Middle Schoolers – “Surviving Middle School.”

The young guys at the skatepark were laughing and giggling at the cellphone. I knew something weird was going on so I slowly wandered behind them to see what the commotion was about. Sure enough, one of the guys had downloaded a picture of a naked woman on his cellphone and was “sharing” his bit of art with his friends. His friends all seemed to want to become art collectors as well.

I bet this kid’s mom had no idea what was coming up on the screen every time he flipped open his cellphone. And I bet she would have smacked him back to electronic prehistoric ages if she found out.

If you use a computer or cellphone, go to the movies or have a TV, you will see naked people—whether you are looking for them or not. Most of the time what is being hurled at your eyeballs is pornography; pictures designed to show sex or to get your brain to think about sex. (As if most Middle School kids need assistance to think about that subject!)

a serious subject

In the last chapter we talked about love and romance. Now I wanna bring up something that’s related, but nowhere NEAR what real love and romance are. I want to be very honest with you about this subject and ask that you take what I tell you very seriously. You are being preyed upon—and you may not even know it. Somebody wants to put implants in your brain that will make handling modern technology in a way that is decent and honoring difficult—for the rest of your life.

Everyone knows that kids in Middle School—especially boys—have a natural curiosity and interest in sex. People also know that viewing pictures of naked people can become very addicting. Some rotten and perverted adults have decided that this is a good way for them to make a fortune in spite of what it does to their “customers.” These people know that if you can get a young boy in the habit of going to naked lady sites or looking for places to get another jolt of electronic sex, you may just create a steady customer for life.

Of course, they start you off with a bit of free “teaser” material to get you hooked; then as a boy grows along with his “habit” of chasing down pornography, sooner or later those who are laying the trap will be able to get money out of the young man—he will PAY to see more and more of what they are offering.

Once you get yourself in the habit of viewing porn, breaking the addiction is really hard to do. Some little collection of sick brain cells in the back of your mind demand to see more, and more, and more! They cry and pout. They scream for their own way. Many people find that quieting those screaming cells is very difficult—giving into the begging of those twisted brain cells is far easier to do.

You’ve probably realized that those who sell flesh have flooded every possible area with their images. Even if you have no interest in seeing pornography, escaping it is hard as it pops up on e-mail messages or blinks on a website that by its name has nothing whatsoever to do with sex. (This is done intentionally by porn distributors buying website domains with innocent or even religious sounding names to use as a front for their material. This way they can fool those acting as watchmen for kids surfing online.)

Website blockers and safeguarding software can help, but the slimeballs often figure out a way around those efforts. Plus, for every Middle School kid who is trying to avoid pornography there are three others who are diving into it and, like the kids at the skate park, trying to share it with others. You’ll find that some kids who use computers in your school have figured out ways to get around the defense systems and are pulling up porn when the teacher isn’t watching.

You’ll discover that, especially if you’re a guy, keeping from getting pulled into this whirlpool of smut will take real effort on your part. You will have to click off the website, avert your eyes, change the channel or walk away. And if you avoid visual porn, songs with lyrics that are just as sick and twisted may assault you from a friend’s iPod or stereo. You will need a lot of discipline and self-control not to indulge your curiosity and interest.

While God has created us so that the average guy finds the image of a woman with little or no clothes to be very, very attractive and interesting, His plan is for that crazy wild desire to be something special and private between two people with wedding rings on their fingers, not something to toss on a public website.

Don’t kick yourself for being tempted to want to see naked people. It is normal and natural. Kick yourself for giving in to the temptation.

Many guys who develop a porn viewing habit in Middle School will experience a lot of tears, flying vases and swinging rolling pins later in life. That’s when when he finds that even though he is married, his habit remains and that the nasty little habit is discovered by his wife. Or perhaps worse…

Get the complete “I See Naked People” Chapter when you join YLO!

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”No White Rappers For Me” But Joshua Luke Smith Changed Everything

By Mary Wilson Peed • • Fort Valley, GA

I have only one rule as a writer for—NO white rappers. I mean no disrespect. I gave birth to a son who loves rap music of every ilk. Seriously, he taught his daughter to beat box before she could speak. Rap is just not my genre of choice.

Enter Joshua Luke Smith. I broke my own rule. To be honest, I had no clue who he was until I googled him. And, as providence would have it, I came upon his Ted x Talk, The World Within: Healing Matters of the Heart. I listened. I was moved. I fell in love with his heart. Joshua speaks out and works against the modern day slavery of human trafficking. Slavery and objectification that exists because there is a demand for it. He makes the accurately haunting connection between the driving hunger in a man’s heart to the table that is laid on the back of slaves, admitting to the appetite in his own belly and the need to starve that appetite.

Having three sons, I immediately resonated with this truth and the courage to speak into the chaos so personally.

My middle son, Jonathan Joshua, works for Garmin – he is a lead engineer. His work is global. He has partners and true friends in Russia and Thailand. He is grieved by a world that paints entire people groups with derision, hate, and suspicion. Joshua Luke Smith, although British born, was raised in impoverished northern Pakistan, he understands ethnicity, bias, and diversity. He’s lived it. He speaks not to people groups or prejudice, but to the human condition and changing the world by changing the world in our own hearts.

The heart of the matter is truly a matter of the heart, and Joshua Luke Smith nails it in lyric after lyric.

What’s on my playlist next to “Grace Got You: Mercy Me,” “Water and Dust: Cory Asbury,” and “Known: Tauren Wells?” Joshua Luke Smith’s “All My Friends,” and “Headlights.” Regardless of how you feel about the genre, Joshua Luke Smith is an important voice for this generation. His music is as profound as his Ted X Talk, resonating with his millennial culture as well as the unsettling times we find ourselves in.

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7 Undeniable Characteristics Of (Most) Middle Schoolers

By Ashley Bohinc,  the Director of Middle School Strategy at Orange (The reThink Group, Inc.), and USA Executive Director of Carry 117- Ethiopia.

I have worked with middle school students in educational, athletic, and ministry settings for more than 14 years now. Although each context was uniquely different, there were still a few basic things about (most) middle schoolers that remained the same no matter what.

  1. They will be intensely interested in you. Do you have a boyfriend? Where do you buy your makeup? What are you eating? Where did you get those shoes? What position did you play in soccer? They may not show it at first, but the moment you let them in (even just a little), they want to be in a lot. They are stacking up questions in their minds, and if they aren’t courageous enough to ask, they are waiting for just a hint of permission from you to let them know they can ask. Of course this only counts for some of the time with middle schoolers. Other times, you could walk into the room in a clown suit and they wouldn’t even notice. #middleschool
  2. They exaggerate (and sometimes lie). Something happens at the 8th grade dance, and you find the girls huddled in a circle crying in the bathroom. If it’s trending, they are talking about it… non-stop. Friend drama is basically an all out brawl (with words or rumors). It thunders outside, and they act like they’ve never been in a storm before in their lives. They see a snake outside, and it’s most certainly trying to eat them. Their teacher is obviously the most unfair person on the whole planet. Oh, and they didn’t copy that homework or cheat on that test; they were just scratching their head! You get the point. It’s a phase full of all out exaggeration.
  3. YouTube is Gucci. According to many research studies, 80%-95% of Generation Z seeks advice through YouTube channels and videos. The most searched videos are about real stories, day-in-the-life videos, behind-the-scenes videos, or how-to videos. They want to know about relationships and dating, teen trends, advice on how to do new skills, and more. If they don’t know how, they go to YouTube. If they don’t know what it is, they go to YouTube. If they want to become famous, they go to YouTube. So basically, you should be on YouTube, too.
  4. What their friends think matters more than anything else. This is difficult, because as puberty begins to change them from the inside out, middle schoolers are desperately trying to fit in. Peer approval will always trump advice from adults. They can’t be seen wearing those pants, hanging with those boys, or walking around in public without makeup. The point is, students at this phase care more about what their peers say than anyone else. That’s why finding an influential student to lead the charge on a new initiative or event you are having will give you more success. Because if Sadie thinks it’s cool, everyone will think it’s cool.
  5. They push their parents away. Middle schoolers want freedom. They aren’t kids anymore, and when they are treated that way, they revolt. They pushback on everything from bedtime to chores to going places by themselves to social media. They want to make their own choices. The tricky part about this as a student leader is balancing earning their trust while still being for the parent. It is an art. Youth leaders have the privilege of standing in the gap between the middle schooler and the parent. But no matter what, always remember to let it be known that you are on the parent’s team.
  6. They are incredibly insecure about what is happening to their bodies. They feel like they are the only ones going through this thing called middle school. Normalizing what’s happening to and around them is imperative. If you are trying to get a middle school student to do something in front of their peers and they resist, there is probably a physical explanation for it. Sweat stains. Period leakage. Wrong bra. Gas. Food in their braces. Acne. Though it’s all normal, it feels isolating to them. So don’t push them.
  7. They want to have fun, but they want to be taken seriously. You can’t be boring, or they won’t want to be with you. They don’t want you to just allow them to have fun; they want you to have fun with them. At the same time, they want you to be real with them. They want to be taken seriously. They don’t want surface answers. They want direct, real explanations. When they tell you something that seems silly to you but real to them, you can’t laugh. You can’t dismiss it. You have to engage it with a matched level of seriousness to show them you care.

No matter where you’re working with middle schoolers, I think these seven things will stay true. It’s who they are in this phase, and it’s why they need people like you cheering them on and loving them as they figure it out.

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