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The Famine Blog

Fasting students? Perfect time to go grocery shopping!


By John Sorrell

This is the first year in a long time that I won’t be a part of a 30 Hour Famine. I just moved countries, ministries and pastoral roles and so this year won’t include a 30 Hour Famine for me. I am already missing it!  The clear focus of the experience and the cause behind the Famine make it one of my favorite events of the year. The Famine opens up conversations and makes space for realizations you can’t offer in other more routine programs. You can show pictures and talk about privilege in a weekly message, but during the Famine experience you get to allow students and leaders to make deeper connections.

One of the ways we created these ah-ha moments was a grocery store shopping simulation. World Vision provided this idea a while back and I am not sure if it’s still accessible in the resources. I’ll describe it as best I can here.

We had our students in tribes already and after they returned from their service projects on Saturday morning (anywhere from working at soup kitchens and prayer walking to prepping materials for our upcoming VBS), we sent them all out to grocery stores.  The mission was to provide a week of meals for a person on an average wage of a poorer country than our own. At this time, the average weekly income in India—for example—is $11.82 (you can choose a country with a slight higher average weekly income if you don’t want the challenge to be quite as difficult. The official “poverty line,” by the way, is $1.90 per day, or $13.30 per week). The students had to buy 21 meals for that weekly average. We added another element to help diversify the experience. We assigned our tribes to specific shopping areas. Some were sent to higher-end grocery stores and some were sent to cheaper stores or market areas. I’ve the led the famine in Asia for many years so some were sent to local markets and some were sent to gourmet food stores.

Each group was given that weekly average in an envelope and were told to bring back their week of meals to show the rest of the groups. Were you ever told not to go grocery shopping while hungry? It can be torture to go while you are fasting. It always took the groups a little time to get oriented and past the desire to buy everything! Every tribe came back with a well planned out menu for the week. The differences between where they went and what was available created new understanding. Eyes were opened. Realizations were made. Yes, the places you think aren’t that high-end actually cost more than you thought. Some were starch and grain heavy with some veggies to help balance it out. Others tried to load up on eggs and grains to give some more protein. They all explained their decisions why they bought the food they had.

Every tribe realized how little you had to live on with the limited budget. They debriefed afterwards and noticed how meat wasn’t an option at all and how limited the choices were for a weeklong menu. It caused some cognitive dissonance for them to understand that meals with this sized budget weren’t going to look like what we were used to eating. It always led to a somber understanding of living with meager provision.

If you have never sent your tribes to the grocery stores with this challenge, I would highly recommend what is a rather easy simulation to set up for your group. Give them space to realize the difference. Give them space to see how little or mundane the meals are going to be. It will stick with them for a long time.

Make sure at the end of the simulation you know where you can donate the items to bless your nearby community. Or take a step further and have them fix their own “break the fast” meal with the ingredients they came up with. It’s a fun but eye-opening way to end the Famine with some teachable moments. Happy Famining this season!

Addressing Parental Concerns


By Jen Bradbury

“I can’t do the Famine,” one of my active, never-miss-an-activity students informed me.

“How come?” I asked.

“My mom doesn’t want me to starve myself,” she said.

It’s something I’ve heard a lot over the years. For many students, fasting – the practice on which the 30 Hour Famine is based – is a barrier to participation.

Part of this is because for some people, fasting – the practice of abstaining from food for a limited period of time in order to draw closer to Jesus – is totally foreign. It’s not always a regularly practiced spiritual discipline in churches.

Even churches where fasting is regularly practiced may have parents who are uncomfortable with the idea of teens fasting. Parents fear teens will grow hungry (which they will) and that fasting will negatively impact their health (which it won’t).

For this reason, it’s important that when you begin promoting the 30 Hour Famine, you also address safety concerns head-on.

Let parents know that junior high and high school students can fast safely. Then specifically delineate those steps you’ll take to make your fast safe. In particular, let parents know you’ll be drinking juice (or if this is the case for you, broth) throughout the famine. Remind parents that juice contains a LOT of calories.

Also let parents know you’re willing to work with students who, for whatever reason, cannot fast. I’ve stood in the kitchen many times on Famine Saturday as someone devoured a bowl of oatmeal or inhaled a granola bar so they could take medication. I’ve also periodically snuck kids food at regular intervals who couldn’t medically fast for 30 hours, even with juice.

Be up-front with parents about students’ hunger during the Famine. Admit students will be hungry. Explain how that hunger enables teens to empathize with and learn about those who are actually hungry everyday. Talk about how the growling of our stomachs turns into a call to prayer. Remind parents (and students!) that one reason you retreat together during the Famine is solidarity. Being with others who are also hungry enables teens to not only bond with one another but to support one another as they fast, especially during those moments when their hunger might get the better of them.

Once you address parents’ safety concerns about fasting, talk about the spiritual discipline of fasting. Reference Scripture passages like Isaiah 58 and share stories of how fasting has impacted previous Famine participants. Use the information World Vision provides to talk about the tangible difference the money from the Famine makes in the lives of hungry children around the world.

As the old saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Once parents understand teens can fast safely, they’ll be much more willing to allow them to participate in the Famine. Once a teen participates in the Famine, their testimonies will speak for themselves. It’s then that they – and parents – will truly begin to understand the value of fasting (and the Famine!)

Holy Hunger


By Kevin Alton

When I first began participating in 30 Hour Famine events, I was a youth ministry volunteer who was mostly known for laying claim to a certain recliner in the youth room at all youth gatherings (I think eventually it actually had my name on it) and for walking around with a 2-liter of Dr. Pepper, nearly at all times. Back then I believe I was consuming 4-6 liters per day and probably found 12oz containers unbearably inefficient. Oh, to be young again.

In those early days of youth ministry, I simply couldn’t make it through a 30 Hour Famine. I believed, without bothering to medically verify it, that I had a borderline low blood sugar issue. The reality (realized later in life) was that I couldn’t handle the systemic shock of going cold turkey on all that sugar. But at each event I attempted, I’d ultimately (with permission) sneak out for a fast food burger after the youth were down for the night.

Nearly two decades later, a much fitter, happier, more productive version of myself was eating well and exercising regularly. My youth leadership team had agreed they wanted to participate in a 30 Hour Famine, and, much to my surprise, I discovered that I could do it. Rapture.

Here’s why I was so excited: for years, I’d been fascinated by the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting doesn’t get the press that other Christian practices do, because one of the first rules of fasting is that you don’t talk about fasting. It’s meant to be private, between you and God. It shouldn’t be uncommon—when Jesus talked about it, he said, “When you fast,” not “If you fast.” I’d never really felt capable of giving it a try, but now it seemed to be back on the table as a possibility.

I mention all of that to say this: it can feel weird to make a big thing of not eating for 30 hours. Your group will be well aware that they’re not experiencing an actual famine; some may even feel uncomfortable about drawing comparisons between what they’re doing and what others are actually living through. They may even feel guilty about feeling hungry, which obviously isn’t the intention.

I’d like to offer two ways of presenting the experience that may help your group engage it:

1. Solidarity doesn’t mean sameness.

Be as clear as possible that you’re not trying to replicate the conditions experienced by others. Standing in solidarity with those who are suffering can take on many appearances for different lengths of time. What your group chooses to give up for what length of time simply shows intentional care and focus. That’s a good thing.

2. Fasting can be experienced as a means of grace.

The deliberateness of fasting is the most important part of the practice. It’s user-defined; you might choose to give up cheeseburgers for a month or milkshakes for all of 2017 (I’m definitely writing this at lunchtime). What matters most is that the practice you select dials you in to a place of resonance with God—the fast you’ve chosen reminds you to be mindful of God. For a 30 Hour Famine, your group has probably agreed that they’ll fast from a certain hour on one day to a certain hour on the next. You’ve established holy ground. Honor it and be fed by it.

The Importance of Retreating


By Erin Betlej

It could have been the lack of sleep from the weekend—or rather the lack of good sleep—or maybe it was that I was three hours into a five hour drive in a bus with no radio and nine teenagers. But when I heard “Do you sleep on your side, stomach, or back?” “Do you have a hunch about how you will die?” “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as your dinner guest?” my ears perked up. No longer tethered to their phones with ear buds, they were talking to one another. They weren’t gossiping or complaining about school, but really trying to get to know one another in a new way. It was the perfect way to start our 2017 retreat season.

Now rewind almost 48 hours to the beginning of the weekend, which was our Student Leadership retreat. These nine students gathered and loaded onto the bus for the five-hour drive to Tennessee. Before we were out of the parking lot, each youth was engrossed in a book, a phone, or homework. The bus was silent. As the youth pastor I planned in advance and fervently prayed that the weekend for these young leaders would be one of spiritual growth and renewal. The spiritual growth I hoped for occurred in ways other than how I planned, but the “take-away” from the weekend were the deeper connections they created with one another. These nine youth cooked, played games, laughed, and shared. Throughout the weekend there were real, honest conversations about what’s next in college, the Women’s March, relationships, executive orders, and theology. On Saturday for almost five hours I heard deep belly laughs, compromising, and many cries of “I’m not Hitler” (if you have not played Secret Hitler, be sure to check it out!). After every session at the conference they were clamoring to share their opinion on what they heard. For two days they lived life together in an intentional community. This is why we retreat.

From January to May I will retreat with students four times for various reasons and to different places. In youth ministry, retreating is a season. It is a season that cannot and should not be missed. We youth workers need these intentional weekends apart engaging in a shared experience with our youth that breaks down barriers of distraction where friendships form based on more than simply affinity or proximity. We retreat to build trust with our youth. To listen to the stuff that’s going on in their lives that they might not share with a large group at youth group. Retreats create space for youth to step away from normal activities and not only examine themselves but examine their priorities. Youth workers have a unique opportunity to teach youth how to listen to God when there are no distractions, so that just maybe recognizing God’s voice is a little easier when they return to their daily routine.

It takes time and for many, the sacrifice of being away from family for the weekend, but don’t miss it. Do not miss the season of retreating with your youth. Was the Student Leadership retreat what I wanted it to be? Honestly, no it wasn’t—but I would say without doubt that it was a success. Community and true connection takes time. If you miss pouring into that part of ministry then everything else is much harder. It is from the depths of community we challenge, celebrate, and walk with our youth through life. The fruit of retreating is beautiful: don’t miss it.

The Importance of Missions in Youth Ministry


By Marty Estes

In my third summer at my first youth ministry job, after a shaky experience at summer camp the year before, we took a risk and tried something new. Instead of a traditional summer camp, we attended a mission camp, a large affair within our denomination where groups stay at a college campus, go out during the day to work sites, and return for worship at night. Our teens had never experienced or attempted anything like this, so here I was, three years into youth ministry, leading them off the beaten path.  And you know what? It worked! It more than worked. That one week of camp launched ministry that would continue for years to come in our group, starting with those teens who caught a vision for their own nation and others that would inspire them to pass an infectious hope down to the ones who came after them. As long as I stayed at that church, I saw it again and again: teenagers who fell in love with Jesus and others all due to the fact that they were mobilized for missions and educated about the needs of the world around them.  Due to this, I want to make a bold assertion:

Your group (AND YOU) needs missions.

Looking our current landscape, one thing is clear: you and I have a lot of work to do. There’s no shortage of need in our own country, not to mention those that live outside the United States that have needs that we are called to meet. God has positioned you and your group uniquely in your community, and given you the resources that you have in order to meet the needs of those around you near and far. I am deeply committed to the idea that solid, growing youth ministries must include missions in the palette of experiences they offer to students because of the impact that I have seen it make in the lives of not only the students who serve, but also, those who have been served. Out of that original ministry to teenagers, we saw almost 10 students give their lives to ministry, including three of those ten who are currently on the mission field on a permanent basis. So, why does your group need missions?

1. Mission is a command

Spend any time at all with us good ol’ Southern Baptists (my denomination), and you’ll encounter what I’ve heard are our “marching orders” and the “job description of every Christian.” The Great Commission.

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT)

This sentence begins with an imperative command, the implied “You” at the start, making the real reading of verse 19 “You, therefore, go and make disciples…” This means that all the going and doing we do is a direct command of Jesus. Anything else is disobedience.

2. Mission is memory-making

Some of the best ministry stories I’ve ever heard have been as a result of something that happened on a mission trip. From the hilarious, like passing a can of Vienna sausages between cars at 65 mph (this was adults!); to the holy, like seeing a whole village of Romanian farmers saved, along with their families’ to the beautiful, like seeing teenagers cry as they had to leave children they had spent the week playing with at a community center—there’s no shortage of memories to be made from missions. But, before you throw these things away as “just memories,” stop for a moment and realize that those moments have a profound impact on faith formation as they serve as markers and milestones along the journey that our students can call back on when the road gets marred by doubt. Yes, God really did do something there! Additionally, some of my proudest ministry moments were watching the lightbulbs come on over students’ heads as they finally “got it,” whether we were in East Tennessee, Canada, or Romania. You have to admit, those are the kinds of memories you really want to make with your students.

3. Mission is essential

Mission is essential for the growth of the Kingdom of God. It’s essential for the stickiness of your students’ faith. It’s essential for the life of your church. It’s essential for the people you serve. There are so many positive things that could be said about mission here, but I believe the best is this (stolen from a little book called Youth Ministry 3.0 by Mark Oestreicher): “The best ministry happens at the intersection of community and mission.”

For most youth ministries—mine included—we do community well. In fact, I believe that in a lot of ways, we over-emphasize it. Why? It’s a lot easier. It’s flashier. It’s not as messy or complicated. And, most of all, it’s fun. But, community without purpose eventually becomes stale. That’s where mission comes in. As we serve, we are drawn closer together to the ones we are serving, and also the ones we serve with. That creates community, which then creates a drive for mission, and on and on. The cycle becomes one that brings both challenge and reward to your group as you seek to serve others and see yourself drawn into further relationship with them.

So, I hope I’ve made my case: your students, and you, youth worker, need mission. Whether you’ve got three teenagers or 300, it’s our job as those who care for and shepherd students to cultivate moments of mission to create a global, kingdom mindset.  This is why ministries like 30 Hour Famine exist: to give our students a taste of what it’s like to not live in a place where, for most of us, food is available anytime we want it. They don’t do this for show, but to instill in those that participate a drive to help those who are hungry, who are broken, who need Jesus. Because hunger isn’t just physical, right? We do missions because, ultimately, we want to meet the spiritual hunger need that we see in the people around us, around the world.

So let me ask you: where’s your mission field? Are you ready to go there?

A Prayer for the New Year


By Sara Clark

The calendar page has flipped to a new year and we all know what that means…

New resolutions, new promises, new goals, new ideas, and renewed energy.

Well, maybe not the last one. I experienced a surge of new energy until January 2nd when the overwhelming to-do lists stained my new clean calendar for the unforeseeable future. I was exhausted and it was only the second day!

Maybe some of you have experienced the same thing. Regardless, I believe it’s time for a new approach. Many of us, including the teens we work alongside, are starved for spiritual nourishment. So before we’re consumed by busy schedules and endless planning, take some time to consider our spiritual lives and how that need can be fed. Spiritual famine is something we don’t want to address one or two times a year, but each and every day.

Below is a prayer I wrote for the New Year’s Day worship service at the church I serve. It was my honest prayer to God and one that I’ve continued to read each day. I hope it will help feed your soul and nourish your spirit.

Amidst countdowns, final splurges, and resolutions promising renewed determination, we think back on the past year; a year that’s been filled with both the gift of joy and the weight of despair. A new year signifies an opportunity to live differently while striving to be better. As the sun sets we cannot help but wonder if tomorrow will be the day we slip back into old habits and mindless routines.

So we ask, what will make this year different, oh God? What will create lasting change instead of the feeble attempts we believe will work? We vow time and time again that today will be the start, today will be different, and today will be what we imagined for our lives. Sometimes we succeed and find contentment and peace, and sometimes we fail.

Perhaps the difference will never come from us, but from You. After all, You alone are the only constant that can create and sustain authentic change. You alone are the only source of genuine love and hope. Looking elsewhere will guarantee an unending search and desire for something more.

The time has come for us to stop running in circles and let go of what we desperately hang onto for the sake of a “better life.” Perhaps our New Year’s resolution should consist of only one thing, a step towards You. Doing so will bring us closer to the fulfilled life You’ve promised. For some people that step may be forgiving someone. For others it may be a changed outlook or attitude, more compassion or patience, while for others that step may require an action. 

We ask for your guidance, Lord. Direct our steps toward you. 

We pray our lives will truly change because we’ve finally let go and allowed You to transform our heart, mind, and soul. Gracious God may this year be filled with You, and may we experience and share the lasting fulfillment of your sustaining love. Amen. 

Will You Be My Val…Oh Wait! It’s Famine-time!


By Amanda Leavitt

What do February 24th and April 28th have in common? Well first, they both have a number two in them. Which is two true (ha-ha-ha…soo punny!), and not a very informative answer. The more helpful answer is this: both dates are the first day of the National Dates for 30 Hour Famine.

If you were wondering how 2017 is suddenly upon you, there’s a good chance you will also be shocked when you miss the beginning of February altogether also. It could happen because you may be disoriented from all the pink and red of Valentine’s Day and the warm fuzzy feelings that perforated Valentine cards and low quality chocolate give you.  And then, February 24th will jump out in front of you with jazz hands, all like “AH-HA, I’m heee—eerrrre!” And then you will think “Oh man, time travel is real…How’d I get here?” It happens to the best of us, even the ones who look at their day planners every day.

Time can dupe you, and the 30 Hour Famine is coming — quickly. You may want your youth ministry to be a part of it. You might be super stoked about getting your free Famine Kit filled with goodies to make your students’ experience of fasting to feed hungry people even more meaningful. The idea of your students learning about and being empowered to care for the world with the heart of Jesus and in turn having their hearts changed forever may have your heart glowing. Or, you may be one of the ones thinking “Oh yes! Oh wow! I can’t wait to hang out with hungry teenagers all night and day!” And God bless you.

Whether you were thinking about the 30 Hour Famine or weren’t thinking about it at all because you are still struggling to write “2017” at the end of the date, the 30 Hour Famine national dates are February 24th and April 28th this year, and right now it is a perfect time to register and begin planning! You can also set your own date if your schedule won’t work for either official date!

So, ward off the side effects of New Year’s disorientation and the Valentine’s time travel illusion. Register here to partner with World Vision to fight world hunger together!

Celebrating Those Who Are “Not in Youth Ministry”


By Ross Carper

I recently changed jobs at my church, shifting my ministry role, and I’ve caught myself saying it a few times now: “I’m not in youth ministry anymore.” It’s been sort of a shocking thing to hear out of my mouth, since I’ve been involved in youth ministry pretty much since I was a “youth” myself.

But it’s not true, really. I’m still engaged with teenagers, just in different ways.

It’s not true for a lot of people around me, either. There are so many who are “not in youth ministry” as a job title or even an official volunteer role, but are having a huge impact on young people around them. Today I want to celebrate a pretty obvious example: teachers.

People of faith who work with hundreds of teenagers every day at school are absolutely in ministry. They usually don’t get to profess Christ with words very often, but they get so much time with students that they can’t hide their identity. For better or worse, their lives play out in relationship with teenagers: their love, their priorities, their passions, and the simple act of consistently caring for their students during an often-turbulent time of life… it all speaks volumes.

Once, a well-intentioned friend was trying to affirm my calling as a youth director by saying something like, “You are so clearly called to what you do. If you were to stop and become a teacher or something it would really be a loss for the kingdom.” The funny thing is, he said this right in front of both our wives, who happen to be teachers who radically affect their students’ lives! He caught himself and clarified: there are some unique gifts that help a full-time youth director be effective, but there certainly isn’t a kingdom/non-kingdom divide between the two professions (or any two professions). The question is: what do you do with any role for the sake of God and others?

My wife Autumn is in the process of starting a “Dumbledore’s Army” club at the public high school where she teaches math. In the fifth Harry Potter book, the DA is a community of students who come together to fight against injustice and darkness in their world, and that’s exactly what Autumn’s club will be… with a bit of wizarding nerdiness mixed in, too. By the way, she honestly doesn’t have time to lead this club.

But it will be worth it. It will lead to new relationships, and if appropriate, some of these relationships may even cross over into settings where deeper things can be discussed. Perhaps even some of them will discover our church’s high school group, which is both very open to all teenagers in our city, and very focused on how Jesus calls us to actively love all of our neighbors. Over the years I can count just as many students Autumn has affected deeply as a teacher as she has in official “youth ministry” roles she has held. The key is: when she isn’t in one of those official roles, she is still relational with teenagers, but also is intentional about how she might collaborate with those who are “officially” youth ministers, for the sake of her students. And I love that about her.

If you work with young people in some “non youth ministry” capacity, remind yourself not to draw those lines in ink. You might be right where you need to be, with all kinds of opportunities in front of you.

If you are a professional youth worker, think of some ways you might partner and collaborate with people who are doing ministry just as much as you are, though in different settings.

As for me, I’m still doing a bit of classic youth ministry stuff: still meeting with teenagers for coffee to talk about life/God/relationships, still praying for them and seeking their well being. But job-wise, I’m challenged by a new role, which is coordinating service and missional engagement for our church. This is a huge opportunity to blur the lines between “youth ministry” and everything else inside our church community. Actively living out our faith and loving our neighbors together is pretty much the best way I can think of to have a healthy intergenerational faith community. One specific thing I’m working on in partnership with World Vision and our new middle school ministry director is taking this 30 Hour Famine thing we’ve been doing, and broadening it to our whole church community (and our city, too) in fresh new ways.

Here’s to doing youth ministry in 2017 from all kinds of different angles, and doing God stuff together that actively loves the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized, at home and around the world.

Contextualization and Conversations: Two Critical Aspects of a Great 30 Hour Famine Event


By Keely DeBoever

I once took a group to a youth conference where the students were asked to participate in a poverty simulation to give them an opportunity to walk in the shoes of someone else.  On the front end, I thought this was a great idea.  It would be an interactive experience that would give my students a deeper understanding of the struggles that many in our world face every single day.  As the conference approached, I began to become a little more anxious, as it suddenly dawned on me that a couple of the students attending the conference might actually already have a deeper understanding of these experiences…because they lived them.  I wondered what it might feel like for them, as other students “pretended” to be in poverty.  I went back-and-forth questioning whether I should pull my students from the simulation and plan something else or just let them go and hope for the best.  In the end, I allowed my students to attend the simulation; however, I made sure that there were lots of conversations happening before, during and after.

When thinking about hosting a 30 Hour Famine event at your church, it’s important to think about this very issue well beforehand.  While the type of hunger that 30 Hour Famine is raising awareness for may seem far off from what our students may be facing, it could be a lot closer to home than you think.  Does this mean that the 30 Hour Famine experience should be avoided?  Not at all! It simply means that, as leaders, we should take care to make the experience a meaningful one for everyone who participates.

There are two very important elements to achieving this: Contextualization & Conversations.


As ministers to students one of the most important things that we do is contextualize.  We read the room! We know our students and our community, and we tailor-fit our messages and our programs to their needs and interests.  This requires some preparation—meaning you probably shouldn’t crack the seal on your 30 Hour Famine materials the day before your event (this is probably not a good idea with any programming)!  Read through the material carefully; ask the hard questions and always keep your specific students in mind.  Make changes! The World Vision police aren’t going to show up and know that you skipped a segment or added your own flare.  I can assure you that the goal of 30 Hour Famine is not to alienate students who have actually experienced hunger in their own lives.  Rather, one of their main goals is to promote awareness about people around the world who face daily struggles to survive…this includes the people in our own communities, schools, and churches.


The other important element to making sure your Famine experience is a meaningful one is to have multiple conversations.  When I finally decided to allow my students to participate in the youth conference poverty simulation, I did so knowing that I would pre-brief, de-brief, and just generally talk to them about it until they were tired of hearing me!  30 Hour Famine events can be meaningful and a lot of fun, but it is important to communicate to your students that we are not “playing” at being hungry.  Do the activities, but be sure to take the time laid out in the materials to properly debrief your students and talk about the experiences in a meaningful way.  One of my students, who had experienced homelessness first-hand, had a lot to share with our group following the poverty simulation experience.  That student’s input made the whole experience come to life for the other students in a way that I never expected.  Participating in the simulation also gave them a chance to walk in that students shoes and helped them relate a little more!

That’s really what these events are all about…helping our students understand others better, so they can better serve the Kingdom of God.

Entering into the World of Your Teenagers


By Eric Woods

“You don’t know me. You don’t understand me. You’re nothing like me.” These are words I hear all too often from the students I serve. And the truth is… they’re mostly right.

The youth in my ministry mainly come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect. Most have been in and out of foster care much of their lives. And more than a few have involvement with the juvenile justice system. None of them are currently living at home with their families.

It really is hard for me to understand what they’ve been through, what they’re thinking, and what’s bugging them today.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My family life wasn’t perfect growing up, for sure. But when I was their age, I wasn’t worried about where I was going to find to sleep that night, or if someone was going to do something to me they shouldn’t. The biggest thing on my mind was probably more like which seat I would get on the school bus, or whether there would still be chocolate milk available when I went through the cafeteria line.

But the more time I spend with these students, the more I realize that understanding who they really are, where they really come from, and what they’re really like is crucial to me being able to make the Gospel real to them, and bring the Word of God to life in their world.

A couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas, I asked them to turn to their neighbor and tell them about the best Christmas gift they’d ever received.

“I’ve never gotten a Christmas gift,” one high-school student said very matter-of-factly to the staff person sitting next to her. It was probably true, and those words shook the young staff person to her core. How can a fifteen-year-old never have received a Christmas gift?

And as she later related that student’s comments to me, I realized that my message about God’s amazing gift to us at Christmas probably didn’t have the kind of impact I thought it would.

Perhaps it was more powerful to her. (You mean, there’s a God who gave me a gift even when no one else has?)

Or maybe not. (Christmas is a joke, I don’t need anything from anyone. Or, Am I the only one who’s never gotten anything?)

Either way, it was a reminder to me to spend a few extra minutes to pass my stories and illustrations through the filter of my students’ lives: stories about going to work with my dad, about being in a car accident, or getting beat up at school… these have the potential to bring up very different memories and emotions for people who have had very different experiences in life.

I don’t avoid these illustrations altogether. They can be powerful tools to engage my students. But I do recognize now, more than ever, that used carelessly, they can do just as much to distract and discourage them.

I don’t always get it right. But the more time I spend with my students, in their world, the better I’m getting at bringing God’s truth to bear in their lives.