10 Things I Want Students to Know as they Start the New School Year

Today marks the beginning of the new school year for public school students in Hillsborough county. I live, work and play in this county and according to one of my favorite websites, Wikipedia, Hillsborough County Public Schools is the 9th largest public school district in the entire country. Crazy big!

On top of that, there are thousands of more private, charter, and homeschool students within our county borders, as well as thousands more college students who have already started back.

Pretty overwhelming, huh? Try driving on the roads around here when school lets out. 🙂

Since I work with students, these stats and the reality of the new year got me thinking. So I decided to write a short letter to all those who already have or are starting school today. Here it is.

Dear Students,

It’s that time of year again. Back. To. School. Some of you are indifferent, some of you are excited and others of you are disappointed. Regardless of your emotion, it’s here.

As I prayed for you this morning, it got me thinking: “What would I have wanted someone to say to me if today, August 25, 2015, was my first day back to school?” So I came up with a list of 10 things. Maybe one or more will stick out to you and challenge you as you start the new year.

  1. You are blessed to be able to receive an education. Millions of people all around the world do not have access to the schooling options you have and would give anything to be in your shoes. You have the opportunity to develop your mind. Your mind is incredibly powerful. Don’t see school as a necessary evil. Learn all you can. Don’t take it for granted.
  2. Do your best. Not everyone is an “A” student. That’s okay. But everyone can give their best effort.
  3. You are NOT entitled to good grades or preferential treatment. Life’s not fair. Others will get what they don’t deserve. That’s okay. Trust that hard work pays off and that there is more satisfaction in earning what you have. Don’t be lazy.
  4. Slow down and have fun! Enjoy the moments. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others or their achievements. Enjoy it. Laugh. Cry. Pause. Soak it all in. It will be gone before you know it.
  5. Figure out who you are. This is a life-long, evolving process. If you’re in college, you should be further down the road with this than a middle school student. But start asking tough questions now. What are your strengths? How has God gifted you? Then take classes and pursue a career around “WHO” you are. And always remember, your character is something you decide and incredibly important. Don’t let others tell you who you are. Don’t downplay it. While figuring out “who you were created to be,” make sure “who you are” is someone of high character.
  6. Get to know people who are different from you. Join a random club. Sit with someone new at lunch. Talk to people who look, believe and think uniquely. Learn to just “be” with people and enjoy them.
  7. Live passionately and love boldly. Be different. Don’t settle for mediocrity or blending in with the crowd. Be set apart. Serve other people. Say over and over again “life isn’t about me.”  
  8. Find a small group of friends who accept you for who you are and encourage you in your convictions. Where you end up can often be predicted by who you surround yourself with. Choose your friends wisely. Don’t worry about being the most popular kid or having everyone like you. Pursue good relationships.
  9. Respect and honor your teachers. They didn’t get into teaching to make the big bucks. They got into it because they care about teaching students. Don’t make them regret teaching. Make it their best year yet.
  10. It’s all about Jesus. If you don’t know Jesus, realize that no amount of fun or achievement in this life can fulfill the deepest longing of your soul. All of life will only become less meaningful the older you get without Him. Anyone can begin a relationship with Him. Even you. If you do know Jesus, my challenge for you is to make Him famous in your school. Honor Jesus with the life that you live and don’t let the school year pass without making sure your friends know about Him. Don’t beat them over the head with Bibles or become judgmental. But grow in your relationship with Jesus so much that others can’t help but want what you have. Let Jesus be at the center of your life.

It’s a new year. You future is not hindered by past failures or guaranteed by past success. Today is a new day.

I Believe in you!

Matt

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What a Life…Happy Birthday Dean Smith!

Dean Smith.

Does this name mean anything to you? To thousands of people it means the world. Sadly, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, he passed away 3 weeks ago. He would have been 84 years old today.

Dean Smith (Coach Smith to those who knew him) was the head basketball coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels for 36 seasons. His coaching accomplishments on the court are widely known and respected. His teams won 879 games, 2 National Championships,13 ACC Tournament titles and appeared in 11 Final Fours.

While those numbers are remarkable, his greatest legacy is who he was off the court.

I’ve often heard it said that “success is when those closest to you say the best things about you.” If that’s true, Dean Smith is one of the most successful people ever to live.

Through reading numerous articles, blogs, tweets and quotes from journalists, players, coaches, staff and others associated with the “Carolina Family” I’ve realized it will be difficult to find another Dean Smith. It will be difficult to find another person who was loved by so many for who he was. Those closest to him truly said the best things about him.

He was extremely humble.

He modeled and expected excellence.

He was a man of integrity.

He fought racial discrimination and helped to integrate Chapel Hill.

He was deeply shaped by his Christian faith and it propeled him to speak out against social injustices.

He had a remarkable memory which helped him to remember people’s names and details about their lives.

He genuinely cared for people. Not just cared about people. Not just cared what he could get out of people. Not just cared when people were useful to him. Not just cared for people when they were around. He truly cared for people. And not just some people. He cared for all the people he came in contact with.

I had the privilege of playing for a high school basketball coach, Ed Wills, who was a manager on the 1993 North Carolina National Championship team. Coach Wills was the one who taught me how to shoot the correct way. He brought to our team years of basketball knowledge. Looking back now, I realize many of the lessons he worked to instill in us were undoubtedly learned while at Carolina. And for that, among other things, we were fortunate and I am thankful. I’ll never forget a few conversations with Coach Wills as he recounted his relationship with Dean Smith. Coach Wills wasn’t a star player on Carolina and to Dean Smith that didn’t matter. Dean Smith knew his name. Knew his family. Knew about his coaching career. Kept in contact with him after he left Carolina. Dean Smith was only a “phone call away.” And Coach Wills was one of thousands who could recount a similar relationship. Remarkable.

In a world where most everyone cares about “being known,” or “knowing the famous,” Dean Smith was a breath of fresh air. He knew thousands of people, and yet the mailman or grocery store bagger felt valued by him.

And what’s remarkable is that he didn’t just show the intention to care about people. He tangibly showed it. He wrote letters. Made phone calls. Remembered names. Gave gifts. Gave of his time.

He wasn’t hurried, distracted or too busy.

He was consistent.

He was a person of power that could have made himself more powerful. Instead, he leveraged his power to help others.

He was present.

Were he alive now, I doubt he’d ever trip over a crack in the sidewalk from staring at the latest status updates on his iPhone. He wouldn’t have been concerned over what was going to happen tomorrow. He would have focused on today. He would have focused on what was right in from of him. Who was right in front of him.

I could obviously go on and on. What a life.

Happy Birthday, Dean Smith!

May more people live with integrity. May more people live out their faith. May more people genuinely care for others. May more people live in the present. And might “I” be a part of those “more people.”

A collection of articles about Dean Smith can be found here.

Sometimes the Bible is Boring

I’ve always enjoyed watching movies. They draw me in and excite me. The story. The characters. The music. The emotion. The images. It’s quite an experience. Some movies are better experiences than others. Some I’ve seen several times and others just once. I don’t discriminate based on the genre. I’m open to sci-fi, romantic comedy, suspenseful action-packed thrillers, animated films, etc.

In the past month I’ve seen two movies in theater: Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. These 2 were hyped a lot, and in my opinion, they didn’t disappoint. I have no desire to do a movie review, but Interstellar in particular was quite the experience. It delved into some of life’s biggest questions. It took you on an emotional roller coaster. It was one of the most visually stimulating movies I’ve ever seen. The music was heavy, uplifting, engaging and overwhelming. It brought you in close to the story it was telling.

When I walked out of that experience my mind was racing. I thought about many of the different ideas and questions the movie raised. And then I had a question myself:

How do I get students to read their Bible when they are watching movies like this?

Now before you think I’m one of those bible-thumping-narrow-minded-movie-hater Christians, hear me out.

See, I work with students. I’m constantly thinking, praying and strategizing about how best to connect this generation with Jesus. And as technology continues to broaden the realm of experiential possibilities through movies, it makes it more difficult for someone like me to say to a student “read your bible.” I mean before we even get to “how?” think about “why?” a student would even want to.

Why would they want to sit down and read a book with black letters (and some red letters if they have a certain translation) on thin, white paper when they can go watch a movie like Interstellar?

Why would they want to read a book that was written a long-time ago and is sometimes difficult to understand when they can go watch a movie like Interstellar?

Why do they want to read something that seems boring like the Bible, when they can go watch something exciting like Interstellar?

Why do they want to read at all, which takes effort, when they can go and passively watch a movie like Interstellar?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a few weeks, and it’s one that isn’t going away. It’s one that’s in a category of questions the church has been wrestling with forever. And the answer is not to condemn movies or to try and sway kids not to watch them. That’s a losing battle. The answer lies in our approach. We have to listen to what is going on in culture and then begin speaking into it.

Because the question is not just “how do I get students to read their Bible?” It’s more than that.

How do we do ministry?

What does church look like in our current culture?

How can I explain the significance of following Jesus?

How do I do________ in an “Interstellar” culture?

As I’ve thought about this and talked with others, here are 6 suggestions that I think can help this generation connect with Jesus.

1) Bring out the life and energy found in the Bible.                                                                                               

Notice I didn’t say, “Bring the Bible to Life.” That would assume that it really is boring and we have a lot of work to do as ministry leaders. But it isn’t. It’s exciting! There’s action. Drama. Scandal. Murder. Miracles. PG-13 type material. Dead people come back to life. People walk on water. And a central figure named Jesus who comes on a rescue mission to save all of humanity from the consequences of their sin. It’s incredible!
“Boring” and “Bible” should not be synonyms. If you teach or preach, commit to bringing out the life and energy already there. And oh yeah, bring your own energy to it!

2) Engage as many of students’ senses as possible when teaching.

This generation experiences sensory overload on a daily basis. With computers, phones and televisions in front of them constantly, it’s good to give them a break. However, it’s also influenced the way they learn and gives teachers other means of connecting with them. Show movie clips. Show pictures. Use props. Draw a diagram. Tell stories. It will make your teaching more effective. CS Lewis was maybe one of the best to ever engage the whole person. Read any of his fiction, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, and you will see how he used many different elements to engage the senses.

3) Help students see the sustainable fulfillment that comes from a relationship with Christ.

Movies, video games, etc. has made us believe we have to always be having an experience, and if we aren’t, we’re missing out. But that’s just not true. High experiences are temporary. Life is lived in the mundane. And in that mundane comes a fulfillment that can be found through a daily relationship with Christ. Through that relationship lies a greater future than anything on this earth could offer.

4) Encourage students to use their God-given talents and gifts.

There are a ton of opportunities for this generation to express themselves in creative ways. We do a disservice to the God who made them when we discourage creativity. We must encourage it! Help students figure out who God has created them to be and celebrate as they live it out.

5) Connect them to the larger story of God on a regular basis.

One of the amazing things movies can do is cause people to long to be a part of the world that the director has created. They can make people feel like they are a part of something bigger. And more, they cause people to feel like they can make a difference. We have largely underwhelmed people with the Gospel if they do not grasp many of those same truths when they read the Bible or hear someone teach from it. Because we are a part of something HUGE—the redemption of all humanity. And we all have a part in that mission. We must connect students to the reality of what God is doing and wants to do in their lives.

6) Allow them to ask questions.                                                                                                                                    

This generation is Bible illiterate. And that’s okay. If we act as if it’s not okay to ask questions about their faith it discourages growth and eventually belief altogether. I’ve written more about that here.

I’m going to keep watching movies. They’re pretty great. Maybe another suggestion could be “Take a student to a movie.” I don’t know. What others suggestions do you have?

Do They Know You Care? The Church and the Buccaneers

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Last night I had the honor of serving as the emcee for an event our church hosted called “Sports Talk: Going Deeper with the Bucs.” Four Tampa Bay Buccaneers players—Gerald McCoy, Josh McCown, Clinton McDonald and Alterraun Verner—spent time sharing how their faith impacts their life on and off the football field. And it was awesome!

Each player volunteered to be at this event and it was clear they wanted to be there. They were real and down-to-earth guys. They were honest about their team and personal struggles. They were genuine and humble. And they boldly shared about their faith in Jesus Christ. And I mean BOLDLY. I was challenged and encouraged in my faith throughout the night and I know everyone else there was too.

We could not have asked for a better group of guys to be with us. They represent the best the NFL has to offer and they served their community well.

Community.

That’s the area where you live. It’s sometimes defined as a small area and other times as a large one. Where I live, there is the greater Tampa Bay community and then smaller communities within that larger one. Last night the event was held in one of those smaller communities of Tampa Bay—Palm River.

See Bell Shoals is a multi-site church with 4 community-focused locations throughout the greater Tampa Bay community. This event could have been held at any of our campuses, but Palm River was strategically chosen.

Why?

Because Palm River needs hope. It’s one of the poorest areas in Tampa. It experiences quite a bit of crime. Many people continue in the same cycle of unwise decisions their parents made. Many lack education. Thousands need Jesus. And every person who lives here is precious and loved by the God who created them.

Palm River has often been forgotten or avoided by those who do not live there, but last night a statement was made: a church and a group of NFL players love them. And that’s huge. Because a community like Palm River often doubts whether the outside world even cares.

There was one young boy in particular who I know doubted last night. This boy was a Bucs fan who came with his dad, but once arriving at the event, wouldn’t get out of the car. One of our volunteers went over to the boy to encourage him to come out and see what was holding him back.

He said, “They wouldn’t come to my neighborhood.”

Those six words played over in my head all night. There had been tons of publicity in the community, but that didn’t convince him. He didn’t believe the Bucs were coming to Palm River. And he had every right to doubt based on what his experience told him. He may have never seen high-profile, successful, well-to-do people in his life come to his neighborhood. Thankfully he got out of the car and he saw that the Bucs really did come!

But how many people just like him think the same thing? Not just that the Bucs wouldn’t come, but that people of influence who can make a difference really wouldn’t come and ultimately don’t care?

There are thousands of communities all over the world that are forgotten or avoided by the church because they are unattractive or unsafe. But those communities, those neighborhoods, are exactly where the church needs to be.

It’s exactly where Jesus went when he was on this earth.

He ate with sinners.

He talked with prostitutes.

He touched lepers.

He healed the sick.

He helped the poor.

He went to messy, tough, unpopular people and places.

And if the church is going to shout the message of Jesus we must go to the people Jesus would be going to if he were here today.

And I think he would be at a community like Palm River.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve heard that said a lot in the past, but it was more true to me last night than ever before.

The church has to stop yelling at people the truth about Jesus without showing the love of Jesus. We must lovingly share the truth. We must show we care. In the process we will look a little more like Jesus than we ever have before.

I don’t know where the needs are in your community, but find where they are and go to them. Serve those people. Love on those people. And show them that you really do care. You never know. There might be a young boy who doubts whether anyone really cares. And you could be the difference that God uses to redirect his life.

What are some ways you could reach out to your community?