Nate Stratman

Faith and Culture


Youth Ministry

An Interesting “Sex Question” from a Teenager


“Do you have to be good at sex?”

During a seminar on sex and dating, I received this anonymous question, among many others from a group of teenagers. While some of the standard questions are, “how far is too far?”, and “is oral sex really sex?”, I have noticed the question about being good at sex has become popular in the last few years. Continue reading “An Interesting “Sex Question” from a Teenager”


Why Cliff Got a New Name

Over several years in youth ministry, I’ve realized that students continually see me in a different way. I started as the Christian Jack Black; loaded with energy, donuts and an assortment of shenanigans. Then I was seen as the moral, advice-giving big brother to many of my students. Now I’ve given up trying to look trendy (not sure I ever did) and I’m settling into a different role, but I’m not sure exactly what that is. Who knows how students will view me next?

It has been the life-story of my mentor Cliff that has opened my eyes to the way students perceive us and more importantly, how we perceive ourselves as youth ministers. Cliff has been serving teenagers through Young Life and the church for over 40 years and he is still at it! (He has taught many classes at Fuller as well) When Cliff was in his 40’s, he clearly realized that students no longer viewed him like they once did. This realization sent Cliff into a season of reflection that ended in a great life lesson for he and many others.

Cliff needed a name change.

I’m not talking about “the Young Life guy formally known as Cliff” or a nickname like C-Diddy. He chose a name that left no imagination to who he was and what he actually looked like. He chose Uncle Cliffy. Mind blowing, right? If you ask around in seasoned Young Life circles, they will know who Uncle Cliff Anderson is. While the new name sounds rather bland and uncreative, it propelled Cliff forward in the way he saw himself around teenagers and vice versa. Cliff was no longer trying to be cool or relevant which has made him incredibly cool and relevant to so many people.

Cliff has helped me to understand when students see an older or maturing youth minister that they are looking for just that. While students are entertained by our joke crackin’, guitar strumming and milk chugging, we all know that they desire more from us.

There are many aspects of ministry that Cliff can offer to families that I can’t. He can say things in a way that I can’t. He has life experience that I don’t have yet.  Our church is blessed to have Uncle Cliffy just the way he is and we are glad he doesn’t listen to Lady GaGa and wear skinny jeans.

As far as youth ministry is concerned, how do you see yourself?
How do you think the students view you?
And what do your students need from you regardless of age?

Owning It: Helping Kids Experience Love for God and Neighbors

By Nate Stratman | Youthworker Journal December 2011

Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience with a ninth grade boys’ small group I was leading. We were studying Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40.

I had hoped the boys would grasp that loving our neighbor was a natural overflow from loving God with our hearts, souls and minds. Boy, was I wrong, as I realized when I heard some of the boys’ comments.

“Poor people are poor because they are lazy and didn’t go to school.” “God helps those who help themselves!” “Honestly, I don’t care about helping them.”
At this point, I was about to blow a gasket. Then I looked at my mostly affluent group, and it dawned on me that in their 14 years of life they had little reason to need God or need help from others. How could I expect them to care about others in need?

We had talked about loving God to death, but I didn’t offer enough tangible opportunities to experience loving God and loving people. So I changed course.

“That’s it!” I said. “Let’s go get in my truck. We’re heading downtown to see what it’s like to be in need.”

I wasn’t sure if this would turn out to be one of my brightest ideas, but it became an ah-ha moment for me and my kids.

Creating Opportunities to Love

Moments later, as one fired-up youth pastor and a pack of wild 14-year-olds headed downtown, I could tell I had their attention.

We stopped to purchase servings of coffee and hot chocolate, and we ended up on a sidewalk where another youth volunteer usually fed some of the homeless people in our city.

We set up shop out of the back of my truck, and my only instruction to the boys was to try and talk to these men and women as they would talk to any of their friends. Before they got to work, I asked them to consider these questions: “Do you think God considers these people our neighbors? If so, what should we do about it?”

From that point on, I sat back and watched as my boys began striking up conversations and drinking hot chocolate with some of God’s most interesting and beloved people.

I heard them talking about the weather, sports, politics, music and faith. The anxiety they had been feeling earlier was nearly gone; my formerly apathetic small group was loving God and His people, but I don’t think they realized it.

As we drove back to the church that night, I brought up Matthew 22:37-40 again. Suddenly, these boys were fired up as the words of Jesus came to life in a fresh, new way. As a youth minister, I got to live out Scripture in front of my group, which was the lesson they obviously needed to experience.

From Borrowing to Owning Faith

No one reaches Christian maturity on his or her own. All of us grow into our faith by borrowing faith from someone else and then eventually transitioning to a faith that is owned, alive and growing.

Any time I’ve heard a teenager share about his or her faith at camp or in front of a congregation, they always mention the loaner. The loaner is grandma, youth workers, teachers or neighbors who live out their faith in such an accessible way that any teenager could grab it.

So how exactly do we help our students along this continuum?

Youth workers not only function as key loaners in the lives of students, but we have a great role in what Mark DeVries calls “Stacking the Stands.” Our first role is to realize that we physically cannot sit in the stands for each student, but we can show countless adults where the stands are.

I want my students to borrow faith, but there has to be a caring someone and something of substance to borrow. This idea of connecting faithful adults to the students in our ministries will demand a shift in our leadership, vision and philosophy.

If seeing students develop a lifelong love for God causes us to get up in the morning, then why not share this excitement with a bigger and broader cross-section of the body of Christ?

Catalytic Events

Sharing hot beverages and conversation with our downtown neighbors was a catalytic event for my teenage boys. For others, it is the camp experience, the mission trip, the big rally event or some other unique moment that catapulted them from unbelief to belief.

The gospels are full of catalytic moments when Jesus took His friends away from the routine of life to a life-altering experience with the Savior.

These catalytic experiences often occur in what the ancient Celts called “thin places.” These are places and experiences where the distance between heaven and earth feels miniscule.

The presence of God is often palpable for students when there is just enough silence to hear Him, mixed with leaders who speak and live out the gospel in a way that is attractive and real.

Here are two examples of my favorite spiritual catalysts for students:

1. Backpacking Trips

When students are confronted with the beauty and risk of the outdoors mixed with the power of silence and campfire conversations, the ground becomes fertile for an encounter with God. For a good reason, many students connect with the Word of God as I’ve never seen before when we are out on the trail.

2. Mission Trips

I’m not talking about a week of laboring on a construction site. Mission trips should demonstrate the same rhythm of life that we want our students to continue when they return home.

Breaking each day of the mission trip up into thirds allows for being with Him in the morning, doing the work that needs to be done during the day and celebrating through worship services and culturally immersive experiences in the evening. While this rhythm feels a bit monastic, it is this spiritual structure that many adolescents are longing for in their mission to know and love God.

Think about your own journey with Christ. Picture those faces you borrowed your faith from and remember the spaces and places where a catalytic encounter with Jesus happened. Now, identify those faces and places that students in your ministry will experience as they venture from a borrowed to an owned faith in loving a living God.

As for my group of boys, the following week after going downtown they had shared their experience with every person in our church who would listen. They demanded that we hang out with our new friends downtown every other week as we attempted to apply what we were learning.

This new effort became a program we call The Curbside Café. The piece that I was completely unaware of was the number of parents who wanted to volunteer to make this ministry happen because they couldn’t deny the change they had witnessed in the lives of their kids.

God’s love compelled me to take the boys downtown, allowing them to witness faith in action; and their own excitement for ministry became contagious. The greatest part of this story is that other Christian adults, families and other small groups began to serve alongside this small band of boys; and the Curbside Café continues to this day.

Nate Stratman has been in youth ministry for over 12 years and is currently the director of student ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. He also serves as a staff consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and frequently writes at

Why Student Leadership Teams Make me Gag, sometimes.

So what do you think we should do?” I said to my student leadership team during my first year of ministry. This was like throwing a dog a bone. For the next hour I heard what sucked, what I needed to do and when I needed to have it finished. I sheepishly concluded with “great leadership meeting guys, I am excited about what God has in store!” What a load!! I wasn’t excited about jack squat. I just got told by a bunch of teenagers what to do and I was about to do it. This wasn’t leadership. I was training baby dictators.

To be honest, I still twitch a little bit when I hear the term student leadership. I absolutely believe in equipping all the saints for ministry, I just question some of the practices we use to go about empowering young people. Here are my two current thoughts as I wrestle with student leadership;

1. If They Aren’t Serving, They Aren’t Leading- This is classic Jesus leadership 101 found in Mark 10:43-45. As youth ministers, we have opportunities to not only get great theological input and cultural observances from our students, but we can help deploy them as little Christs to a hurting and thirsty world. Looking back I was absolutely setting a low bar by only asking kids about their opinions on pizza, lock-ins and t-shirt designs. In God’s economy, it is the kid who picks up trash after a meeting or who welcomes a newbie who is being the kind of leader our world is dying for.

2. Why a team?-
For me, I have struggled with the select few students serving as a leadership team. You could fire back at me and say “hey, Jesus had His select few!” Well I’m not Jesus and these aren’t my disciples. Here is what I am most excited about as far as student leadership is concerned; a. find those who are already leading and continue to encourage the mess out of them. I know it is hard to believe, but even before we get to our lesson about being a servant, students are already serving. b. investigate the passions and gifts of your students and match them with a need in the ministry, community or world. I would honestly make this one of your highest priorities as a youth worker. It is textbook discipleship and I believe it can spread like wildfire throughout a ministry. While I have known this in my head, I can honestly say that I haven’t been as vigilant about it as I should have. Instead of an insider-outsider leadership team, why don’t we aim to equip each student as a leader in one way or another. I think it would make brother Paul happy based on his body part talk in 1 Corinthians 12.

So how are we attempting to do this? Well you might think I’m a Presbyterian goober who loves polity and meetings and you are wrong! But I have started to think that our students are showing elder like traits in decision making and our little deacons are becoming caretakers. Both of these are servants, they just approach service in different ways.  For instance, we have collected a good sum of money over the years and a small group of students who are responsible stewards are actually deciding how we will best invest this money into the Kingdom. They are writing up some guidelines and the other students will soon submit missions requests. I think our group has been pretty crumby at hospitality in the past, but we have a small band of students who want to change that. One crowd of girls has taken it upon themselves to be the first to welcome and invite any student with a disability who visits our group. This are just a few that get me excited.

What are some ideas you have about student leadership?

Talking to Teenagers about Sex: 7 Helpful Thoughts

1. It is Time: A parent of a teenage girl came to me many years ago in a tizzy about the upcoming sex, dating and relationships talk I was about teach at church. As she was mildly hyperventilating she said ” my 16-year-old daughter isn’t dealing with those things yet!”  I responded with my inner eye roll and a small barf in my mouth before I could respond. Looking back on the situation, I believe the mother was saying that she didn’t want her daughter to be dealing with sexuality. The reality is that our young children who see commercials, magazines, look on the internet or ride the school bus are already exposed to sexuality and most likely the type of exposure that you would never choose.
2. How far is too far? Think about the motive behind this question. My translation of this is, “how close to trouble can I stand without really getting in trouble?” When I would ask this question as a teenager, I can assure you that I wasn’t thinking about commitment or the feelings of my girlfriend. I wanted to know what I could get away with. Whatever the temptation, if we stand on the very edge of the cliff, it only takes a small breeze to knock us over.

3. Rob Bell and Sex (not hell)- Regardless of what you think of Rob Bell, his second Nooma video called Flame is very helpful in talking about marriage and sexuality with teenagers. In the video, Bell talks about three types of flames or love found in Scripture. The major point is that the 3 flames of friendship, commitment and erotic love are all needed in marriage. For example, an affair or one night stand is the sexual flame without commitment or friendship. Many Christian marriages are deeply committed, but the fun and the passion has often fallen away. Although it is hard for teenagers to hear, sex is just ONE part of love.

4. The Fireplace Analogy- When a fire is inside the fireplace, it has the ability to warm the house. When fire gets outside of the fireplace, it can burn the house down.”  In surveying all of scripture I see that God was the designer of sex (not Hugh Hefner) and His design was meant for the context of marriage. You might be like me and want to challenge this analogy. I actually mulled over many scenarios of sex outside of marriage from my own experience and non of them warmed the house.

5. The Best Question Ever: Instead of bantering about right and wrong, I think there is a better question. In a piece I wrote called “They are Going To Do It Anyway!”, I close with this paragraph; Just because there were no condoms or kegs in the Bible doesn’t mean that God has left us hanging on these specific issues. We often run off our teenagers by being so black and white on certain issues without asking them to actually think through and own the decision. “The Best Question Ever” is a book by Andy Stanley that centers on one HUGE biblical principle: Wisdom. So the question becomes, “what is wise about having sex as a teenager?” or “is it wise or unwise to have a keg for the senior prom in my basement?” Ephesians 5:15 says be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise but as wise.
I have actually had a number of students over the years write their answers on a board in my office to “is this wise or unwise” and watching them discover biblical wisdom is one of the perks of my job.

6. Doing the Dirty or the Nasty!- I continue to hear these two terms when students talk about people having sex. As Christians, I feel strongly that we have a duty to reclaim the beauty of sex. If I would let my daughters figure out sexuality on their own, I am certain that they would refer to sex as “doin’ the dirty” as well. 

7. Major “No-No’s” of Talking to Teenagers about Sex:
     A. If your conversation is a monologue and not a dialogue, you’ve lost ’em.

     B. If they say “everyone is doing it” or you say “nobody is doing it”, you        both have lied.

     C. You are not a sexpert! Sex is something to be explored and learned within    marriage, not something to conquer with the mind.

     D. Enough with the Scare Tactics! – Herpes and teenage pregnancy are absolute realities of sex outside of God’s original plan, but scaring teenagers about disease and pregnancy cannot be our main approach to talking about sex. I have known several friends who were raised in Christian homes that scared the living daylights out of them in regard to sex. These people have actually had difficulty in having sex the first year of marriage. These friends have been scared for so long about sex that they just couldn’t believe it was good and of God.

Question: What are the consequences of having a “NO, NO, NO…..GO!!!!” approach?

These are just a few conversations that I repeatedly have with teenagers and parents. What would you add?

Grateful for the Ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

“The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning
and bread and meat in the evening.” 1 Kings 17:6

I was spending time with one of my students the other day and he was flirting with the idea of one day becoming a youth minister amongst a few other careers. He didn’t flat-out say it, but basically asked so how poor are youth ministers”? We had a great conversation and I basically told him to look at my home, clothes, cars and decide for himself if I looked poor or not.
As we kept talking I was trying to explain to him that there was an elusive blessing that many in ministry receive. Without using the term, I described the blessing of the ravens. The term is based on God’s use of these rather unattractive birds to provide for Elijah in 1 Kings 17.  As the son of a pastor I remember an anonymous man stuffing our freezer with all kinds of meat, bags of hand-me-down clothes on the porch or free tickets to some kind of event for our family. In my own experience in ministry, the ravens have blessed my family in many ways and half of those blessed birds are anonymous. I now realize as I look back on my childhood that we didn’t have too many material things compared to some of my friends, but the ravens kept me from realizing that.

Raven Entitlement
For Elijah, the ravens came and went and the brook actually dried up, sending Elijah packing. I firmly believe that God continues to provide throughout ministry, but he might not use the ravens in the same way or maybe not at all. What I’m really trying to say is that there is a danger in thinking well, I’m suffering for the Lord with this puny salary as a youth minister, so these church folks better start dishing out the goods!” I confess that I have had seasons of the “poor-me’s” and they usually happen when my prayer life goes from being a willing servant to an entitled whiner. It is this very discussion of expecting God to bless us in the ways we want him to that makes me nervous about the prosperity gospel.

Raven Recruitment
There was a time where the church family literally supported the priest/pastor by providing food and shelter for them. In many ways, the Catholic church still cares for their priests with basic provisions instead of large compensation packages that many protestant pastors receive. Most congregations I’ve been around have many people in the congregation who make much less than their youth minister and pastor does and these brothers and sisters could use a raven or two. I have realized the never-ending faithfulness of God as I have recently tried to be a raven to some special people in my life. Even though I have grown in the area of stewardship, I know that deep inside of me is this voice that still thinks the church owes me something. The church owes me nothing. I realize more and more that I am one amongst a local flock of ravens who owe much to our God who has really long arms.


* Inspired by Dr. Jim Singleton, my friend and pastor who has been teaching on Elijah this summer.

Three Ingredients for Youth Ministry

I remember speaking to teenagers one time and I was using an illustration about a cookbook. I was explaining that we often treat God’s word as a recipe in a cookbook and if we don’t like an ingredient, we leave it out. I ask the group, “what happens if you leave out necessary ingredients when you are baking?”
The answer I was looking for was that the cake would be jacked up and not look or taste right. The answer I got from a 9th grade boy named Jason was “The cake will you burn and you will too!”  I’m not quite the hellfire and brimstone type of guy, but Jason got the attention of his peers that night.  read the rest here…..

I am now writing Youth Ministry articles for The Burner Blog, a great resource from Fuller Seminary currently featuring folks like Dallas Willard, Tony Jones and many more. Make sure and follow the Burner! I will probably have one post a week over at the Burner and will link it on my site as well.

I Know What You Believe By Looking at Your Church Building.

Father Anthony is an Orthodox Priest with a Young Life background who lives in my community. He shared some interesting thoughts about church buildings with me one day when I visited his church with some of my students. He described 3 major strands of the Christian church and how their buildings tell us something about their belief in God.
1. Evangelical  (Large/Contemporary)-  These buildings are made to fit as many people as possible inside so that all may be “saved”. The media and music create a non-threatening and attractive environment that encourages followers to bring non-believers to church and it helps that the buildings don’t look like traditional churches.

2. Reformed/Presbyterian –  John Calvin was known to preach for 2 hours. These buildings look like lecture halls, with all seats pointing forward towards the pulpit. This design makes sense for folks who put great emphasis on the study and proclamation of the Word.





3. Orthodox –  For an A.D.D guy like myself, the Orthodox church has all the smells and bells. The entire worship space is covered with sacred art, telling the story of God. The priest is not the focal point in these services as there are many places for you to look and ponder the works of God. The Orthodox priest appears to facilitate the worship experience more than lead it.

These descriptions have really caused me to think about the blessings and curses of churches around the globe. Think about a few of these comments and questions below and ponder the necessity and usefulness of bricks and mortar.

1. an Episcopalian priest friend of mine was facing losing his beautiful church in denominational battles. He said “I actually pray that we lose it, because our identity is too wrapped up in the building.” Erwin McManus, a pastor at Mosaic in LA, said that God led them to sell their building which caused ministry to flourish across Southern California. 

2. Of the three models above, is one more conducive to youth ministry than the others?

3. One argument for huge elaborate churches is that they draw in more people who then can pool their resources to be a larger collective blessing to the world. True? 

4. I have seen thriving churches around the globe who meet under tents and have beat up sound systems and chairs. Why aren’t their large churches in our country that look like that? 


What does your church building look like and what are the strengths and weaknesses of its design?


10 “Take Home Experiences” from the Dominican and Pico Escondido

(Playing stick ball in the Barrio. I’m pitching “tapas” or caps to Ryan)
Ten Transformative Moments from the Dominican Republic:

( these are in no order of impact. They are each instruments in the symphony that impacted the lives of many teenagers.)

10. La Comida- Is there anything better than good food and great conversation with new and old friends? Moro ( a rice dish that rocked my face off) and tostones (fried or toasted plantains that rocked the other side of my face off) were two of my favorite culinary finds. 

9. The Doulos School- a Christian, bi-lingual school that has an incredible model for education based on “adventures”. The founders of the school started Pico Escondido and are long-time Young Lifers. They have a coffee plantation that offers all the proceeds to scholarships for local Dominican children at Doulos. Kids there are learning about Christ, recycling, gardening, architecture as well as the basic subjects.

8. Berto “El Gato”- a carpenter at Pico who made me laugh everyday as we both butchered each other’s language. Berto and I would be BFF if we lived closer.


7. Dan and Elizabeth Jessup- Dan is a VP with Young Life who oversees Latin America amongst other things. He and his wife brought donors to the camp for the blessing of 2 new cabins at the camp. Dan goes to our church and I loved that our student’s saw Dan in his element has he gave great vision for YL in the Dominican.

6. Club and Poop Smell- we helped lead a club that was out in the rural part of La Vega. As we walked up to the house, the smell of manure was unreal! Stalls and cages for pigs, chickens and goats surrounded the shed we met under.  As kids were laughing, worshipping and listening to the word of God, the aroma turned from a stink to part of the essence of this powerful ministry.

5. Spanglish- Both the Gringos and the Dominicans made great efforts to speak and hear each other’s language (that will preach!). This is such a simple, yet powerful example of understanding what life is like for our brothers and sisters around the globe.

4. Near Carjacking- Our group was returning to camp after a night in downtown Jarabacoa. We stuffed into a flat bed truck with a tarp over it to protect us from the rain. I was sitting on the back bumper hanging my feet over the edge as dogs chased us and motorcycles whizzed bye. The truck came to a stop and people started to surround the truck and the noise of a small crowd got louder and louder. I was convinced that some gang was about to mess with us and the group started to get a bit concerned. We sat still for 10-15 minutes, which seemed like hours. I finally worked up the guts to walk to the front of the bus and saw a mob of young people surrounding the truck. It was local Vida Joven kids who saw that our driver was one of their volunteers, Joba. These folks get relational ministry that they cause traffic jams to be with kids, I love it! 

3. My Beard- My beard often draws many stares and random comments in other countries. When I was walking down the streets of La Vega with my baseball hat, sunglasses and a stick, the men shouted “FIDEL, FIDEL” as I walked bye. I was also called Moses, Osama Bin Laden and Santa Claus. 

2. Staying with Odalys- Odalys is 20 years old and is a leader in Young Life. He hasn’t seen his mother in 5 years because she is a housekeeper in Italy. He takes care of his 7-year-old cousin, goes to University and loves Basketball. We actually watched his beloved Miami Heat get beat in the NBA finals the night we stayed with him. The home stays were by far the most formative experience on the trip for many of our kids as they discovered bucket showers, roosters and no air conditioning.

1. Teenagers are Teenagers, everywhere- The students of both nationalities blended together in a powerful way. From walking to the local cormado, having a crazy dance party and playing cards on the porch, to worshipping together and cleaning up the trash in the barrios. They are all relational beings who long to be known, love to laugh and are on a journey with Jesus Christ.

Notable Mentions: eating several pounds of ribs, waterfall hike, coffee factory tour, meringue lessons, eating dinner with our entire group from a tiny empanada stand, singing in the dark and many more.

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