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The 2015 SmarterYM Reading List:
5 books you should pick up TODAY

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

Presenting the 2015 SmarterYM Reading List...
I sat down in January to start whittling away at this list, and it was immensely challenging. My goal was to take the 100+ books I've read in the last year, and boil those down to the FIVE that I think best address youth ministry in 2015.

If you were an intern in my ministry, I'd consider four of these books essential reading. That's how valuable they are proving to be in my life and my ministry.

Here we go.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown
I loved this book. McKeown deals with the idea that with narrowed focus and commitment to priority (not priorities!), we are able to make a more significant impact.

How many youth ministers do you know who are planning dozens of different events and programs, but aren't seeing the impact they really hoped they would?

Essentialism deals with the idea that when we focus on the stuff that matters the most, we can massively multiply our impact.
[Get Essentialism by Greg McKeown at Amazon.]

Lead Small by Reggie Joiner
This summer, Lead Small will be required reading for ALL of my small group leaders, and maybe it will be for yours too.

As students become more stressed out than ever before, they're going to need pastors more than they need programs. And the only way to make that happen is to equip more of our adults to be in ministry and relationship with teenagers.

Lead Small is the best resource to help us learn how to pastor, shepherd, and lead their small groups.
[Get Lead Small by Reggie Joiner at Amazon.]

Comedy Writing for Late Night TV by Joe Toplyn
You don't have to be funny when you speak. It's totally possible to be effective without making people laugh.

But if humor is a tool in your arsenal, you should at least be good at it. After all, there's nothing more awkward than when someone fails at deliberately trying to be funny.

Here's the thing. Upfront humor is a learnable and improvable skill, and although Comedy Writing was written for the racier world of late night shows, the principles will help you too.
[Get Comedy Writing by Joe Toplyn at Amazon.]

Creature of the Word by Matt Chandler
I try not to buy-in to the Christian celebrity game, but I am a huge fan of Matt Chandler and his obsession with preaching grace.

Teenagers are expected to perform athletically, academically, socially, artistically... All of them have felt the consequences of a failure to perform.

That means that the idea of grace is more counter-cultural than ever, so we're going to need to plan on spending more of our time explaining it. This book will help you do that.
[Get Creature of the Word by Matt Chandler at Amazon.]

Communicating for a Change by Andy Stanley
This was on the 2014 reading list. It's on the 2015 reading list. It will probably be on the 2016 reading list.

That's because of all the preaching, teaching, and speaking books that I've picked up in the last decade, I haven't gone back to any of them as much as I've gone back to Communicating for a Change.

Some people will think I'm the old man for going back to this well, but there it is - the best book for communicators I've ever read.
[Get Communicating for a Change by Andy Stanley at Amazon.]

A way to get students to read their Bibles (that might actually work)!

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

Like most youth workers, I'm always looking for ways to encourage my students to get into reading Scripture.

(If you've been here for a while, you already know that I don't tell them to read their Bibles every day.)

So when I fell into a crazy, simple, and powerful idea about Scripture-reading, I knew I had to give it a shot.

The craziest part? It kind of worked

I also knew I had to share it with you, so let's get started with this:

Is it possible that different parts of the Bible were meant to be read in different ways? (I think yes.)

Here's what I mean. Obviously, the individual Psalms sort of stand alone. If you wanted, you could read one Psalm - one chapter - at a time and take home the meaning each intended.

But what about the rest of the Bible?

Is reading the Bible in daily chapter-sized chunks really the best way to fully engage with its stories? [Click to tweet this.]

The epic story of the Exodus reads like the script to a blockbuster film. You don't watch movies like that in ten minute chunks.

The book of Jonah reads like a short story or Novella. You don't read those in multiple sittings spread out across the course of days.

And my favorite example? What about the letters of Paul? They're letters and they're written like letters.

Who are the people who receive a letter from a loved one and then read it a paragraph at a time for week? Yet, that's how students are trained - purposefully or not - to read the book of Philippians.

Is it possible that students would comprehend Philippians better if they read it like a letter instead of a bunch of randomly chunked sentences? [Click to tweet this.]

We tried it and the verdict was a pretty unanimous yes.

So, if you gave me the choice of asking a student to read a chapter of Philippians every day for four days or reading Philippians in its entirety in one sitting and then not opening their Bible for three more days?

I'd choose the second one.

(It would be better still if they'd read the letter in its entirety every day for four days.)


The biggest reason students don't read their Bibles as much as we'd like isn't because they are too busy or because they don't take their faith seriously.

It's because after three or four days of reading something that they do not understand, they get frustrated and give up. [Click to tweet about this.]

Go ahead. Turn to a random chapter in Leviticus or Revelation or Acts and read it. By itself, without context and without the gift of your prior knowledge, it probably wouldn't make any sense.

If someone decided to start reading Harry Potter in the third chapter of the fourth book, that would be a curious decision, yet that's how many of our students experience Scripture.

There are stories and arcs in the Bible that necessarily build off of one another. You and I are armed with the experience and knowledge to understand where a particular chapter is coming from and where it's going. In that context, it makes sense.

Most of our students don't have that context yet.


Our students have been indoctrinated by sermons and devotional books that largely unpack the meaning of a verse or a handful of verses.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. I do it too.

But when students get used to exclusively unpacking the meaning of individual verses, they miss something else that's just as important.

They miss the meaning of the larger story. [Click to tweet this.]


Feel free to challenge students to read a Psalm a day. Even if they miss a few days a month, they should be able to do that twice a year.

But when it comes time to read the actual stories of the Bible or the letters of the New Testament, I'd encourage you to try something new and different.

Ask them to read larger chunks of the Bible in one sitting.

Many of my students would tell you that it's easier to find one twenty-minute block to read through the book of James than it is to find five six-minute windows when they can give their full attention.

It's also probably a more effective way to increase a teenager's understanding and comprehension.

At the very least, it's worth a shot.

Is this something you're going to try? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Why it's so difficult to get students to open up (and why that's okay)

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

You ask the big, deep life and faith question, and all you get in return?


It's not that these kids don't talk. They literally never stop talking on trips in the church van.

But when it comes to real life, family, or faith conversations, it feels like you're pulling teeth.

What's usually happening here is something so under-the-surface, we might not even notice it.

We're being tested...

...and our students are waiting to grade us.

When you've got students who just won't open up, it might be because they're trying to gauge how much you're actually interested in them.

Now, there are several reasons why a student might not open up. Personality and perceived social standing are two of them. Good luck changing those things.

But there's a third reason, and it's something you and I can do something about. Often, there's something going on in a teenagers' heads - consciously or not - as they gauge you even as you're asking the question.

Let's call it the Perception of Authentic Interest. PAI is best summed up this way:

Teens want to talk about their lives, but more than that, they want to know that you actually want to hear them.

You've played this game a hundred times.

You ask a student how his day was.

He tells you it was fine in a notably sorrowful tone, his voice trailing off toward the end of the word, as he looks forlornly away from you.

"Just fine?" you ask.

"Yeah, I guess. It's just, whatever."

This goes on for a while. You pry, you experience resistance, but at every juncture, it feels like you're just being goaded to pry more.

You are being goaded to pry more.

This tooth-pulling, CSI-level interrogation is obnoxious and annoying for youth workers every time it happens. Why can't we just get to the point?

Because sometimes, that is the point.

Sometimes what a teenager needs isn't your advice or your wisdom or even the opportunity to vent. Sometimes what a teenager needs is to demonstrably know someone cares about them enough to truly desire to hear about that teenager's day.

Teenagers live in a world that's rich in talking and poor in listening.

They know that most people who ask them how they're doing don't actually desire an honest answer and will rarely stick around to listen to their response.

Most of all, there's this:

Too many teenagers feel like no one really cares about them. They'd love to tell you about it, but they'd rather give you a chance to prove them wrong.

Go ahead. Prove them wrong. Then, report back to let us know how things are going.

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