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Yesterday morning I did what could’ve been one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do. My nephew plays on a special needs baseball team each Saturday morning, along with some amazing athletes. During the season, my family and I do our best to catch as many of their games as we can. Nothing beats watching them cheer each other on and pour their hearts into every play. That’s another tear-jerker blog for another day.

Last season, I joked about bringing up my sound system and playing “big league” with them. Maybe I’d announce their names, play some music, call the play-by-play action and let them feel like their heroes on TV. Well, I got that chance. Completely unknown to them, the coaches lined them up on the field as we blared the National Anthem. And as if it were rehearsed, they all yelled “Play ball!” in unison and cheered all the way to the dugouts. Perfect start!

I didn’t anticipate what God was about to show me though as each batter stepped to the plate. Every time I announced their name, they responded with unimaginable pride like I’ve never seen. Some threw their hands in the air, some bowed, some couldn’t stop smiling as their families cheered. In fact, by the second inning, some wouldn’t even step up until they heard the booming sound of their name in the air. One young man even pointed to me as to say “You know what to do. Hit it!”.

Then it dawned on me… the sound of your name. The glorious sound of your own name and being known and recognized!

Not many things are better than hearing someone calling your name to cheer you on and let you know they love you. Just like Norm from Cheers, for a moment, you step into the spotlight feeling as if you’re unstoppable and even, just maybe… unforgettable.

The Spirit spoke to me that morning, not necessarily in words I could hear, but in words that spoke to me just as loud. Here it is.

But now, O Jacob, listen to the LORD who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.

“I have called you by name”! Can we think about this for a second? God Almighty calls YOUR name. The Creator of the Heavens and Earth calls YOUR name. The same God who put on human flesh and took the guilty verdict for you shouts out YOUR name! If you don’t get the weight of this, read that verse over and over until you do!

God tells us, “I’m throwing the greatest head to head game in history and I want you on my team.” He has a position for you to play and a jersey for you to wear. The field is ready and Hebrews 12:1 tells us “we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses” ready to cheer you on.

When times get tough, it’s easy to feel like we’re just benchwarmers, the backups to those MVPs who seem to play with great success. It’s easy to feel like the ones in the dugout who are kind of forgotten as the game goes on. But it’s important for us to remember that in the midst of our struggles, God knows your name. When it seems like no one else cares, God knows your name. In the 9th inning, when it all seems hopeless, He knows your name.

Sometimes the game feels long, especially when we seem to be losing. But keep your ears open and be ready to step up to bat. You play for the greatest coach ever and you are an MVP in His eyes.

John 10:3 “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

Earl

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Early in my youth ministry career, I learned something kind of bizarre. I tried to connect with respected youth leaders in my area in hopes of gaining a little help from their years of wisdom. I had hoped they might take this new guy under their wing to help expand some influence in our large community of lost teens.

Instead, what I learned was that they were similar to football coaches. They had their successful ministry playbook and did their best to keep it private. No follow up emails or phone calls, no follow throughs on their “Yeah man, let’s get together” after an unexpected bumping in to. It seemed that this was their home field and they weren’t about to let some small-time coach come in and make their fans switch jerseys.

Maybe this isn’t true in your arena or even how YOU think, but I can bet someone reading this is saying, “Yep, I get it.”. You’re looked at as “competition”, the other team, the rival church down the street, even if you’re a small one. I understand how we could all think that way sometimes, but if we’re honest. it’s just… stupid.

As our ministry and my experience has grown, I try my best to not fall into the coaching playbook trap and make it a point to connect with others as best as possible. Last week I invited a youth pastor to breakfast who was new to our area, freshly married and new to full-time ministry. We talked about our “home field”, I shared some things I’ve experienced and invited him to join the one other leader willing to hang out with me.

I love this because if we do it, we all win. We can all benefit. Here’s a few reasons why.

1. Venting!
Consider it counseling without having to lay on a couch. And honestly, who can understand you better than someone who is fighting the same battle? You’ll be shocked at how much turmoil your “rival team” has in common with you and how much better you’ll feel when you leave. You might even feel better just hearing how messed up THEY are! (kidding… maybe) It’s great to have someone to vent to, plus it’s free, unless you pick up the check.

2. A community playbook
It took me a while to get used to this, but when my local youth pal and I started to share playbooks it was amazing. We’ve shared message ideas, stage design ideas, volunteer training ideas. We’ve partnered up in speaking at local public school Christian clubs. I even called on him to help me plan our first winter retreat since he had lots of experience and is a lot smarter than I am. In fact, we are even working on an idea to join our ministry teams to host a local youth conference. Imagine what an impact could be made if we were willing to make our successful plays public.

3. Power in numbers
My buddy and I have kids who go to the same schools and live in the same neighborhoods. Honestly, why shouldn’t we work together to build a mega-team of soul-winners? I mean, we both have the same Kingdom-minded goal which is to mobilize our kids to make Jesus-powered change in their community.

I always think of the scene in “A Bugs Life” where the ants realize how powerful they can be if they join forces against the enemy Hopper. That scene of them lining up behind each other and linking arms is such a powerful picture of what we could do together. Same for us. Not MY church, THEIR church, THIS church, THAT church, but THE church!

I think youth leaders ministering to the same areas should remember this truth.

Ecclesiastes 4:12 “A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”

Maybe it’s time that we stopped trying to win the attendance Super Bowl and polishing our trophies for being the powerhouse district youth ministry. Maybe we should swallow some pride, come together and open our playbooks with each other. Maybe you need to reach out to someone who can help you or maybe reach out to someone that YOU can help.

You may be surprised at how many battles we begin winning with more coaches on the same team.

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The legendary Mick Jagger once said, “Time is on my side”. Some of you just sang it in your head, some of you just realized what time it was and that you are running late and have so much to do. Lots of people would disagree with Jag’s philosophy and see time as a stresser and a nemesis. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say “If only there were more hours in a day.” or something similar. This article is to help you at least feel like there is and make the most of every minute.

I don’t claim to be “great” at many things, but for some reason, time management is a super-power of mine. Without trying, I just discovered that I have a unique ability to get tons of stuff done in small amounts of time. This isn’t one of those “I work better under pressure” things. It’s a “work better so I don’t HAVE pressure” thing. Let me share 3 of the things I use that keep me productive and allow me to keep pace with the clock.

1. Do it Now!
This one seems simple but, when you make it a habit, even in small things, it’s a beauty. You get an email that needs a response; do it now. Something laying on your table needs to be put away; do it now. You see the floor needs swept; do it now. You get the idea. So often, we fall victim to that word “procrastination” and it actually just works against the clock and your schedule. All we’re really doing is building a pile of stress we have to deal with eventually. Even if it’s the little things, just do it now!

2. What can I do while I’m waiting?
This concept is my golden nugget! I LOVE this one. My previous job required me to occasionally work in filing. We would scan barcodes, check some info and then slap a label on it to be filed away. The mandatory “rate” was 35 per hour. Well, my super-power kicked in and I discovered a few things I could do while waiting for the computer to do ITS thing. I had free time and a free hand so why waste either? This concept catapulted me into the most hated guy in filing because I began cranking out 75 an hour! Managers loved me and co-workers despised me as I became the new “trainer” and rates went up.

I use this concept every single day. As I wait for the rice to cook, I unload and load the dishwasher. As I sit in the car repair shop (literally writing this in the lounge of Kia!), I work on sermons or blogs. What can you do while waiting? Ask yourself that question every time you find yourself in a “hold”. You’ll be surprised how much you get done, or even how much you get ahead.

3. Eat the frog!
I learned this one from a Pastor named Nelson Searcy. I’m not sure it’s his original idea but, it’s phenomenal and has changed how I think. It’s similar to the first one I listed but different in it’s context. Imagine you have a desk full of things to do and one of them is to eat a live frog. Nothing in you wants to do it (I hope) but it HAS to be done. So you put it off; over and over and over, doing other stuff first. The problem is, it never goes away. He sits there and you see him out of the corner of your eye, knowing it’s inevitable. His croaking becomes distracting and it’s hard to focus on the task at hand.

We all have that “frog”. The phone call you dread making, the email you don’t wanna respond to, the mandatory thing you hate to do most. It sits there and nags at us and in turn, makes us LESS productive because it steals our thoughts and motivation. Eat the frog! Do it first, get it done and move on to the things you would rather be doing, with full focus.

Ephesians 5:15-17 says “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Time is a gift from God. It’s a gift we are expected to be good stewards of. Trying to squeeze in family, work, ministry and anything in between is tough. I get that. But I truly believe that if you walk in wisdom, you’ll breath easier and actually, just maybe, have some time for yourself. Give it a shot!

Do it now!

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This is a long read, I know but, sometimes we just gotta say it like it is. This blog is for anyone who is either brand new in youth ministry or for some insane reason, contemplating it. I wanna focus on the one thing that no one had ever prepared me for when I said “Sure!” to the invitation into this journey. The one thing that almost ruined me early on.

Let me backtrack some first. When I took over the 8 kids in our youth group, I knew nothing. Seriously, nothing. I was a drummer/singer in the adult band and that’s it. I didn’t know much of anything about the Bible, no seminary training, no past history of growing up in church, not even a desire to DO this youth group thing. However, our church had lost it’s current youth leaders and I was the “drummer guy with the mohawk” that the teens were drawn to. Who knew a doofy hairstyle would be a qualifier.

I agreed, with the candy-coated anticipation of pizza, games, some Jesus stuff and a bunch of kids who thought I was the coolest guy in church. Hah. Newbie. So what was it? What was that one thing I wish I was warned about?

The emotional connection.

If you’re going into youth ministry for the right reasons, be prepared to find yourself emotionally invested beyond your imagination.

My wife and I weren’t prepared to lay awake worried about a kid’s crappy family life. Not prepared to actually care that a kid was about to fail school. Not prepared to have our heart broken as we realized a kid’s parent couldn’t care less about them. Not prepared to get the call that a youth had passed away, or a family of four were killed in a plane crash. Not prepared to hear a youth say “My father just died”. Not prepared to ride with a family to pick up their kid from jail after I’d invested countless hours of ministry into him. Not prepared to watch kids graduate and never look back at Jesus again.

This seemed to be the one thing left out of every youth book I read. It’s the thing no church leader or mentor said to be ready for. Maybe for good reason. Maybe it’s to protect us early on and keep us from hightailing it out of there before we preach our first sermon. Whether it was good intentions or a mere oversight, I wasn’t prepared to be sucker-punched by this onslaught of compassion I’d never felt before… nor wanted.

But… to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If youth ministry was all about lock-in’s, pizza parties and “all hail the mighty youth leader”, I’d bow out. Sure, it would be easier and flattering but, I don’t want that kind of shallow, meaningless, candy-coated calling for my life.

Jesus didn’t say “Come to me all who are lookin’ for a good time, a cool youth room and a soda chug contest!” He dealt with those who were messed up, heartbroken, hopeless and helpless. He dove in head first to a pool of sinful, disobedient, stubborn people that He chased after when they were drowning in the deep end.

I think Matthew 9:36 reveals why. “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Compassion.

It’s one of the things that makes us most like Jesus. I’m pretty positive Jesus had some sleepless nights as His heart broke for those He encountered. I’m sure He sat and thought about the destructive choices even some of His closest followers were making. But compassion propelled Him forward. Compassion fueled His ministry. Compassion made it all bearable. Compassion was the backbone of why He chose to endure death on our behalf. Jesus wasn’t caught off guard by this love He would have for people and I don’t want you to be either.

I’m praying for you as you dive into the youth ministry pool and begin your journey. Splashing around in waist-high water is fun but you’re called to the other side where it’s deep, dangerous and tempting to stay away from. Compassion is the life preserver you will be called to throw out time and time again. Be ready, be willing to take a deep breath and jump.

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As a kid I had lots of things I was really in to. The pattern went like this: music, breakdancing (seriously, I was a great head-spinner), skateboarding, BMX, surfing, bowling, bodybuilding, then back to music. Looking back, most of these things came by way of fads or trying to keep up with what my buddies were in to. They weren’t necessarily something I was passionate about. I was easily planted and then transplanted into whatever was popular at the time, like most people. It’s okay to have hobbies and spend time doing things you deem fun, but the danger comes when we allow this pattern to become inescapable. God never intended for us to live as weak-minded and unstable people, tossed around by outside forces. Check out what Scripture says about people who refuse to live like this.

Psalm 1:3 “They are like trees growing beside a stream, trees that produce fruit in season and always have leaves. Those people succeed in everything they do.”

Our life depends on our roots! What are we tapped in to? Where are we getting our life source? Roots are the difference maker! Here’s why.

1. Strong roots provide nourishment
Psalm 1 paints this picture of a tree, full of color, full of fruit, full of life. But why? Because of where it’s planted. It’s roots are always close to and pulling from a source of health and nutrition. Now watch this!

Colossians 2:6,7 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

2. Strong roots sustain you
Jesus never promised a pain-free life, coated in Narnia. Us Christians are actually more susceptible to Satan’s attacks than non-believers. So what will sustain you when life kicks your butt? What keeps you from freaking out when a job ends, a marriage struggles, when you don’t make the team or pass the test? If your roots are not planted firmly in Jesus, good luck thriving and growing through the harsh elements of this world. Check out Matthew 13, “Parable of the Soils” for Jesus’ insight to that.

3. Strong roots will stabilize you.
Think about a tumbleweed. It used to be a striving plant at one time. It became dried up by outside elements and snapped off it’s dead roots. Now the wind blows it wherever it wants. Are you in danger of becoming Satan’s tumbleweed? Has your previous root system failed only to let him blow you into an addiction, an affair, a crooked business deal, a group of friends you shouldn’t be involved with? That same Psalm speaks of this in verse 4.

Psalm 1:4 “That isn’t true of those who are evil, because they are like straw blown by the wind.”

Or what about this one?
Proverbs 12:3 “No one is established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will never be moved.”

It’s so critical to have strong roots that keep us in place when Satan kicks up a storm capable of knocking us off our foundation. It literally is the difference between life or death, striving or wilting, standing tall or toppling over.

One last thought on the stabilizing power of roots came from a story I saw about the California Redwoods. I was amazed at how trees that were 300+ feet tall, some very narrow and having a root system that only reaches around 10 ft down and on average about an inch in diameter, could stay standing. How???? I learned that the roots of these Redwoods grow together. They are so intermingled that they support each other! What a beautiful picture of what the local church should look like! Supporting each other with our roots tied together in small groups, events, prayer and love. If you’re not part of a local church, you’re missing out on the strength of a forrest of others holding us up when we are at our weakest.

I’ll end with this question, “What does your life look like right now?” Honestly? Dry, lifeless, fruitless, withering, struggling? Maybe it’s time to do a soil sample and be transplanted, Maybe it’s time to get your roots buried deep into Jesus, the wellspring of life, bringing forth stability, vibrant color and fruit just like He intended! Roots make all the difference.

John 4:14 ” But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

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If you haven’t read “Matt the Bird” part 1, do that first. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Several months ago, I purchased a bug zapper for our back porch. We live on what some people call a “lake” and others call a giant retention pond. Either way, it’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes. I’m convinced that this body of water is a portal straight from Hell to unleash these demonic creatures to punish us. Florida ain’t all beaches and sunshine folks.

I set up the insect electric chair and read them their rights as each one that night paid the price for their crimes. It was amusing and captivating and I was proud of my leadership in protecting my family. However, what happened the next morning shook me… it shook me deep. On cue, in flies Matt! Only this time he didn’t land on my window. He landed right on top of the new zapper. I can only imagine his amazement as he stared at the pile of dead bugs like he had just found the bird version of Golden Corral. Think about it. Imagine walking into your favorite restaurant to find piles and piles of free steak, perfectly cooked for you!

As I marveled at his return, he suddenly began to shove his little beak into the light! I pounded on the window (true story) and yelled at him as if my own child had run into the street (slight embellishment). I didn’t know if it was dangerous or not but, the thought of what could happen to him devastated me. He flew away, seemingly unharmed and probably really, really satisfied. Immediately God reminded me of this truth found in 2 Corinthians 11:14 “… even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”

Our enemy is a master chef with the ability to wrap up the most damaging delights in tantalizing displays. He lays out a table spread worthy of a page in Home and Garden, lures us in and we fill our bellies on his chocolate-covered sin. What seems like a blessing leaves us doubled over, sick to our stomachs and vowing to never come back again. But he knows we’ll get hungry and weak, ready to fulfill our selfish desires and return to the table, ignoring the danger of our own gluttony.

Jesus said in Luke 11:35 “Make sure the light you think you have is not actually darkness.” How do we do this? I mean, we wouldn’t fall for it if we knew it would harm us… at least most of us wouldn’t. How do we know what lies underneath the luring beauty of what we can’t look away from? How? We pray. We seek God’s wisdom in our relationships, in job opportunities, in our selfishness and even in the small decisions that seem unimportant. We pray that God will reveal who the true “chef” is behind the plate set before us.

Matt the Bird may have to learn the hard way, but we don’t. The next time you get hungry, the next time you smell steak, ask to talk to the chef. Sometimes it’s worth asking for the recipe!

John 6:35 “Jesus replied, ‘I am the bread that gives life! No one who comes to me will ever be hungry.”

Earl Henning

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I’ve made the comment before that one of my favorite things to do at Christmas time is shopping. Hang on, it’s not that simple. Watching my debit card being slid through that machine repeatedly makes my eye twitch and wrecks my soul. What I mean by “shopping” has nothing to do with actual gift purchases.

What I really love is walking through the stores, hand in hand with my wife as Christmas music plays and all the decorations are up. Now, I enjoy this anytime of the year, but there’s something about Christmas time that just amplifies the emotions. Its just her and I, all alone, on a mission… together. We’re not concerned about our jobs, not talking about the “troubles of life” or “what’s wrong with kids today”. It’s just us; a coffee in one hand and hers in the other. It’s a simple time of connecting, sharing, and hearing each other.

Relax guys, this isn’t gonna be a sappy Hallmark movie blog in effort to win “Hubby of the Year”. I mention this because of something that dawned on me this morning. I had just dropped my daughter off at school and was praying on the way home as I usually do. I said this to God. “God, I need some help. I’ve been really flat the past couple of days. I’m just not feelin’ it. I’m spiritually sleep walking lately and I’m asking you to please stir up something and re-ignite my heart.” My answer came in somewhat of a flashback of the past couple of days and other “flat” moments in my spiritual trek. These moments look like this.

Wake up, hit snooze and pursue 9 minutes of bliss. Actually get up this time and grab my phone by the bedside. Check emails as I head downstairs with one-eye open (not the safest thing but hey, there may be an important one I missed while sleeping). Get safely downstairs to brew the liquid gold my system is screaming for. Turn on the TV and watch a dog that can hoola-hoop??!! No way! Awesome! I make my daughter’s lunch while waiting for Good Morning America to start. Hey, Taylor Swift is gonna be on. I should DVR this for her! I answer a few emails and wait for her to get ready. I’ve got a few minutes, so lemme check my Facebook.

I get a chuckle out of your post about how cold it is outside since it dipped below 70. Oh look, little Susie lost her tooth! (Susie’s name has been changed to protect her identity). There’s one of those old looking cartoons with the clever captions. Nope that one’s not funny either. Wow, he’s got an exam today and forgot to study… again! Crazy stuff. Daughter’s ready to go. Load up, head out, wait in line, drop her off, drive home and pray, “God, I need some help. I’ve been really flat the past couple of days…”

When’s the last time you spent real time with God? Not at church, not in your small group, not in that routine little ‘Thank you God for this day” prayer. I mean just you and Him? Your Bible in front of you, a coffee in one hand and His in the other. Talking, sharing, connecting, letting his Word and His love awaken you from your spiritual slumber. We can’t DVR the episodes of God’s fueling in hopes to catch it later. Don’t miss these moments. Taylor, Facebook and the hoola-hooping dog can wait.

Mark 1:35 “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”