What do a virtual reality lab, a selfie studio, a comedy show and an NHL locker room have in common? If you’re Zac Workun, these venues are prime settings for youth ministry training.
Workun is a student ministry specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources who helps plan and lead the Experience, an immersive training event for youth ministry leaders. The three-day conference in Nashville, Tennessee, is focused on skill refinement in preaching and teaching and is intentionally kept on the small side. In true youth ministry fashion, attendance is limited to as many Next Gen Ministry leaders as can fit on a bus.
“The session locations we travel to are all surprises for the participants, and the event speakers ride with us from one venue to another,” said Workun. “There are no stages or green rooms; we’re all in it together. It feels like a youth group trip for youth ministers.”
Learning in community
Each stop along the Experience’s three-day journey focuses on an element of sermon delivery to youth. These topics include the importance of story, contextualizing biblical truth in culture, leaning into one’s communication gifts and the need to “land the plane” when delivering a message.
“This was one of my favorite conferences I’ve been to as a student pastor,” said Anthony Vargas, student pastor at Together We Church in Yukon, Oklahoma. “It equipped me to better communicate with teenagers. My favorite parts involved getting to know people who also serve in the trenches of student ministry and learning from one another.”
Now in its third year, the Experience emphasizes community and helping youth leaders unpack teaching and preaching skills through hands-on activities —s omething many youth leaders haven’t been able to do in an intimate, cohort-style setting since seminary.
“Preaching or teaching is true no matter what sized ministry you serve in or lead,” Workun said. “Even though our attendees come from a variety of church settings, there’s shared equity around their desire to communicate more effectively to students.”
Josh Drake, student pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Princeton, Kentucky, attended the first Experience Conference in 2022. Two weeks later, he was asked to fill in at the pulpit after their senior pastor became ill.
“The Experience equipped me to preach the gospel in a more concise and effective way,” he said. “I loved the group setting where we had a chance to preach to our peers. This was more than just another conference; it was a chance to build relationships with other student ministry leaders. Those friendships are still active today.”
Variety of venues
While teaching sessions at the Experience vary each year, one thing that stays the same is the element of surprise. Conference attendees load up on a bus together and don’t know where they’re going until they arrive.
“Having each session at a unique and fun location helps cement the content,” Workun said. “We often remember what we do because of where we were when we heard it.”
Here are some of the unexpected venues that have hosted the Experience attendees:
Culture and context
One session at the Experience always focuses on preaching to youth in their context and culture. At a comedy show, Chad Higgins, parent ministry specialist at Lifeway, shared about the power of story and what it can unlock in the lives of students.
Another session at a virtual reality lab involved youth leaders standing in an empty room but interacting with each other through gaming VR goggles. This experience helped illustrate a message about how youth make connections in today’s world and the visible and invisible dividing and connecting lines between students in a digital age.
“My favorite part about the Experience Conference was going to spaces that helped convey the points we were learning about,” said Jameson Barker, minister of student discipleship at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. “The Experience immerses you in all the components of creating a captivating message.”
Another culture-focused session involved a Nashville business that specializes in hosting “selfie events.” Usually populated by teens and young adults taking silly pictures in costumes in front of colorful backdrops, the business found a different clientele as a few dozen youth ministry leaders filed into the studio to learn about the communication preferences of today’s youth.
“We had several young Christian YouTubers talk about the power of speaking through a cellphone camera to a teen audience and how that may be as much of an avenue to communicate to them as using a microphone in front of a music stand in the youth room,” said Workun.
Calling and giftings
Another session brought attendees to the locker room of the Nashville Predators hockey team where a sports chaplain shared about the importance of leveraging one’s giftings for their ministry calling and how teams succeed when everyone leans into their role.
“There’s a real temptation in a digital age for youth leaders to mold their communication style to whatever seems popular at the time,” said Workun. “But God gives each leader unique communication gifts.
“The locker-room session also provided a needed pep talk for exhausted youth leaders. Some of these leaders have been in youth ministry for 10-15 years, and it feels like they’ve hit the third period,” said Workun. “Can you imagine having started in youth ministry in 2006 before cellphones, social media and COVID? Many seasoned youth leaders feel like the ministry they were trained for no longer exists, and they struggle with imposter syndrome. Having motivational moments with them is a rare gift.”
Communicating the gospel
Of course, the most important sessions focus on staying true to God’s Word and effectively communicating the gospel. These sessions are typically held in local churches, begin with worship and allow attendees to practice preaching in front of their cohort.
“Many youth pastors don’t have people who can provide feedback after they preach,” said Vargas. “This conference solved that problem with high-level communicators who helped reveal our teaching blind spots.”
Barker said he appreciated the opportunity to communicate a message in front of his peers and receive real-time feedback. “Many times, the people who hear us week-in and week-out only tell us the good stuff,” said Barker. “The people at the Experience are open and honest and only want you to get better.”
Wisdom lived out
The Experience is intentionally designed to make the most of three days by keeping attendees involved with content in an immersive way.
“We want our attendees to be committed to the community experience and receive more than just content delivery,” Workun said. “There are so many youth leader podcasts and YouTube videos available for consumption. But to get to live out wisdom with others who serve in the same kind of ministry and face similar challenges is something you don’t get to experience every day.”
Registration is now open for the 2024 Experience Conference, coming to Nashville, May 13–15. For more information, go to StudentMinistry.Lifeway.com/Experience.