Sunday, February 9, 2020

Why I'm a Campus Pastor

This time of year is full of conversations with our apprentices and young campus pastors. Some of our pastors' commitments to FOCUS are up at the end of the school year, and they've been thinking and praying and seeking counsel on whether to make another multi-year commitment to student missions. Our staff is in the process of deciding which apprentices to invite to stay longer on our team, and they, in turn, are deciding whether to accept those offers. On top of that, a whole new group of graduates is carefully discerning whether to apply for the 2020-21 apprenticeship class. The applications are due at the end of this month! Please be in prayer for the Spirit to give all involved wisdom and discernment this month as we make key decisions that will affect our future.

With all that going on, I've been reflecting on why I'm a campus pastor, a missionary to college students. I firmly believe there is no more strategic mission field than our college and university campuses. These campuses are the crossroads of the modern world, where ideas and cultures are coming together, much like the crossroads cities in the ancient world where the Apostle Paul chose to take his message about Jesus.

Young people come to college to learn, to decide for themselves what they believe and what they will live for. In this season of life, they are forming the friendships that will form them in the coming years. They typically have as much free time during college as they will at any time before retirement. They're often excited, idealistic, hardworking, and passionate. And yet, for decades the Church has been losing far too many of our young people when they leave home and go off to college! Many will come back to church eventually (often with plenty of unnecessary baggage!) but many will not. But whether they come back or not, we are missing a huge opportunity while they are in college!

I'm tired of people making comments about what it will be like when students get out into the "real world." Even college students live in the real world--this isn't a fantasy novel. They face tough challenges and work hard and overcome obstacles. They are practicing skills they will need and making real decisions that will shape their lives and the lives of others. It's a different season, but it's very real.

It's in vogue to call young liberal students "snowflakes," but as I've heard Brady Bobbink say, I've known many who have been to hell and back and haven't melted away yet. The Lord chose David when he was a young man to fight a giant that all the adults were too afraid to fight. Paul told Timothy to not let others look down on him because of his age but to set the example in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. Many of these young people on campus are setting an example I wish we in the church would follow. They are fighting spiritual battles against a very real, very powerful enemy. They are making a difference in the lives of their peers, living out the biblical vision for community rather than the American dream vision of privacy and property. Do they have much to learn from their elders? Of course! But do their elders have some things to learn from them? Absolutely.

I can't think of a more important thing to be doing with my time and talents and money than to make disciples of college students and help them mature in the Lord. They are not the church of tomorrow; they are an important part of the church of today. My prayer is that God would give them many tomorrows so that these amazing young disciples will one day be the amazing elders our churches sorely need. We've got plenty of seniors filling the pews, but far too few true spiritual elders preparing and equipping the next generation.

More to come on this topic, but I want to say thank you to all of you who believe in what I'm giving my life for, who pray for me consistently, encourage me along the way, and invest the money that you've earned to be a blessing to young people you may never meet, but whose lives are absolutely transformed by you regardless. God sees the connections. He knows your fruit even if you don't. And He's doing something so cool on these campuses through our partnership. To God be the glory!

It's time for our annual SICM fundraiser again, and it's going to be a great show! It's a little earlier this year, on Saturday, February 29. You can get your tickets for $20 at

And don't forget about the $50 VIP ticket experience! Seats in the front 3 rows, a special snack box put together by Debbie Sustaita, priority parking, backstage access between shows, and more!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Unlocking the Psalms

I just spent the day out at a lakehouse (Thanks to the McCrackens!) praying and reading and writing to prepare for my sermon on Psalm 1 at our upcoming Winter Camp. No guest speaker this year--it's going to be some of our FOCUS staff unpacking various Psalms. We picked this particular topic (proposed by Peter Ueng) for a couple of reasons.

First off, we want to see our students grow in biblical literacy, and they often feel especially intimidated by the Old Testament. It's easy to come up with a long list of topics we'd like to preach on, and that's certainly important! But maybe it's more important to equip these young people for a lifetime of engaging with God's word and learning how to let the scriptures speak into their thinking, their feelings, and their actions. Many students arrive on campus, even from church backgrounds, never having read much of the Bible, and they feel intimidated by it. Our hope is to help them get excited about the book of Psalms and to give them tools to read it well.

Secondly, throughout most of Christian history, the Psalms have been the hymnbook of God's people. This is a rich tradition that stretches back hundreds of years even before the birth of Jesus! Yet now, in America, we hardly use them at all in our corporate worship, and as a result, our praise songs can begin to all sound the same. There is certainly little place for lament (over a third of the Psalms) in our church services, to the degree that we begin to feel that when we're hurting, being with the church is not the right place for us. We think at church we need to be happy and joyful. This shouldn't be! Our hope is that the Psalms can further inform our worship, helping us relate to God in all the seasons of life. If these young people don't know how to relate to God in the hardest and darkest seasons of life (or even worse, if they buy the lie that loving God means everything will go smoothly and painlessly, disregarding Jesus' words that "In this world you will have trouble"), they are in danger of running away from God rather than to him when the storms of life hit.

We all need to go back to the Psalms and hear again their message for us. The first Psalm is different than the rest--not a prayer, but a blessing.

When we hear "law" or Torah, we should not think just of a list of rules from the Old Testament, but the will of God for all creation, all the received wisdom from generations before, and even God's guidance through our consciences (compare with Psalm 119 and all the different ways "law" is conceived of). This is not a book for just anyone; we are greeted at the beginning of the book as a reader of God's word and as a lover of God's will. There are two paths--God's path and a path to destruction. It's not a book for perfect people; even people on God's path can fall down. But it's also not a book for people who scorn God and his ways, walking a completely different path through life. We're invited as followers along the right Way into a life of solidity and fruitfulness. That's God's will for us. If you haven't approached the Psalms lately, I encourage you to read them again. And I ask you to pray for those of us who are preparing these lessons for the students. I'm sure we'll post them for you to listen to in a couple of weeks!

Brady Bobbink at Staff Retreat and Sunday Morning Service

We had the wonderful blessing of Brady Bobbink (founder of the SICM conference) and his sweet wife Shirley coming to our staff retreat to encourage our team. They spent MANY hours answering questions and ministering to us. It was such a blessing! Then he came and spoke at the joint service of our Family of Churches. It's well worth a listen. You can find it here!

Brady speaking during one of our sessions at Staff Retreat.
I love this sweet picture of my dad with Brady at the end of the service.

Student Testimony

Thanks for all you do and give to make this ministry to students happen!

Monday, December 2, 2019

New FOJ Study and it's Giving Tuesday - Let's Keep FOCUS Growing!

Giving Tuesday - Keep FOCUS Growing 

Today is the day! We have $36,000 in matching funds on
the table if you'd like to give a special gift. If you give on Facebook, they will cover all of the fees and we'll receive 100% of your gift, but feel free to give at or make a pledge for later. I'm so thankful for all the ways you guys partner with me in ministry, so don't feel any pressure!

New "FOCUS on Jesus" Study

This summer we completely overhauled our signature one-on-one Bible study to meet new needs and reflect what we've been learning in the 15 years since we originally wrote the study. The old FOJ has been and continues to be an amazing tool to make and mature disciples, but we realized that a growing number of students, even those raised in church, were completely unaware of the biblical story and how it should be shaping our lives. 

The new study, rather than going topic by topic, starts in Genesis with creation and moves through to the new creation at the end of Revelation. It still explores the same topics of faith and sin and discipleship and community, but it does so as they emerge in the narrative, with students reading larger chunks of scripture along the way. The feedback has been almost entirely positive, though we know we'll be debriefing and refining the study in the coming months and years. If you're interested in checking it out, you can find it by clicking on the new cover below:

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Encouraging Notes from FOCUS Alumni

I consistently get messages from past students highlighting ways that their time in FOCUS continues to shape their lives. It's very encouraging! I wanted to share a couple of recent ones so you can get a glimpse into some of the fruit of our partnership.

From one of our young men:

Have you ever read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind? It made me think about how glad I am for the summer school of ministry, and for you introducing the scholars from Regent College and elsewhere to me. I seriously think it saved my faith. I don't think I could follow God if I hadn't had that mental and philosophical help. - Matt

I haven't read the book, but I've definitely come face to face over and over again with young men and women who are asking the question, "can I be an intellectual AND a Christian?" How did we get the reputation of being anti-intellectual? It's especially ironic given the role of great Christian minds over the past 2000 years who have advanced civilization in basically every area. 

This coming weekend, we will be hosting Dr. Mary Poplin, a professor from Claremont Graduate University, to speak at our fall Pizza Theology on "Is Reality Secular?" Please pray that the Spirit will shape the minds of young disciples through events like these so that they lead in their various fields as thoughtful, committed Christians.

From one of our young women:

After our annual Leadership Conference, planned this year by Laurence Glenesk and my wife, Sarah, one of our young graduates who has become a teacher sent them this message:

Hey I know you two put all this together, and I wanted to let you know what an immense blessing it has been.

Coming out of vocational ministry and into education, one of the struggles I have felt over and again is the lack of specific training for how to hone my ministry in the context I am in. In FOCUS, I had staff directors pulling resources for me, asking me challenging questions, and generally supporting my desire to grow as a creative minister. In teaching, I’ve found the same efforts (Professional Development) to be largely a waste of time and money, and not anything related to spiritual training, obviously. Last year, FISD’s topic of focus was “innovation.” They pulled some famous, charismatic person to speak at our convocation, who gave a presentation that was both entertaining and alienating. The disconnect between my day-to-day interactions with students and this man’s urgent cry for innovation didn’t help, and it mostly ended up in our staff having to create forced lessons “using technology” that would have gone better on paper, if we’re honest. But hey, it’s “innovative.”

So today I was not excited about our topic, though I am always excited about what God’s gonna do at our leadership day. Boy, was I wrong.

Today’s sessions have been the best—THE best—training for my job that I have ever had. I spend about 85% of my waking hours with Gen Z kids and I love them. My thoughts when I go to bed are consumed with those kids. My prayers are full of hope and heartbreak for them. I desperately want to learn to love and serve them better and to show them the heart of God. Today I have learned how to, and it was free.

I am blown away at the quality of this conference, and I know it is driven by attention to the Spirit’s leading and a love for God’s children. What an honor to call you both friends and share in the gifts God has given you in ministry. Thank you so much for all you’ve done!

We are continuing to invest in our alumni, as well as our students, through events like these, equipping them to live out the mission of God in their various spheres. I'm so encouraged to hear messages like this one!

2 More Things

Our annual Keep FOCUS Growing fundraiser will be coming up on giving Tuesday after Thanksgiving on December 3. Please pray about whether the Lord might lead you to give a special gift during this year-end season. We are currently projecting a loss for this year, but we're trusting God to make up the difference!

Here's a sneak peak at the theme this year!

And here's a sweet testimony from one of our students. Thanks for investing in young men like Johnny!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Meet Our New Apprentices at UTD

Each August we accept a group of college graduates onto our staff for one school year. They come to serve the community, to learn and grow in their own faith, and to explore the possibility of becoming a campus pastor long-term. As usual, we have an outstanding group this year! There are 12 in all, but 7 of them are serving at UTD. I'm going to let them introduce themselves. There's also a student testimony and a picture from Fall Camp below. We had a great turnout!

Thank you to all of you who pray for this mission and to those of you who give financially to support it. I'm so encouraged by your partnership!

My name is Cort Thomas. I graduated from UT Dallas with a BFA in Arts & Technology. I am very excited to be doing the FOCUS apprenticeship at my alma mater. I am excited to get to grow as a person, to serve the community at UTD, and above all to deepen my relationship with Christ. Something interesting about me is that I have been married since August of 2018!

(Another Fun Fact is that Cort is our only male apprentice at UTD this year.)

My name is Ashley Obregon. I graduated from The University of North Texas #GMG with a bachelors in Social Work. I love being with people, the enneagram, and being loud. I have always been someone who felt like they needed to advocate for people so social work made sense to me. When I was a student in this ministry, I saw the way people loved and fought for me. When it comes to the apprenticeship, I am excited to have the opportunity to learn the things that I loved most about social work within the world of ministry. My life would be very different if people hadn't fought for me, and I look forward to getting to be that for someone else. I pray that this year God uses me to be a fighter for someone.
My name is Erin Campbell, and I am from Plano, Texas. I recently graduated from The University of North Texas with a degree in integrative studies concentrating in social work, psychology and women studies. I am very excited to be doing the FOCUS apprenticeship! I loved being in FOCUS as a student at Collin and UNT, and I am thrilled to be able to serve this ministry and the people in it. I am also looking forward to learning from talented ministers and to deepening my relationship with God. God used FOCUS and the people in it to change the trajectory of my life. I cannot wait to see what He does with the staff and students this year.

My name is Kylie Von Runnen. I am a Texas native and graduated from UTD this past Spring with a degree in Business Administration. It is super special to get to be on staff at this campus that was so integral to my growth in my relationship with God throughout college. I'm using this season to learn more about God and fall more in love with Him as I love His people on this campus. I am so excited to be at UTD and can't wait to see what God does in and through me in this season of life! Fun Fact: I love Disney and cats.

My name is Maria Stufflebeem! I’m originally from Recife, Brazil but have grown up in the Dallas, Texas area. I graduated with a BS in General Studies with a double major of Nursing and Business Administration from TWU. I felt a fire in my heart for the FOCUS apprenticeship, and am so excited to be a part of it! I absolutely love the opportunity to dive deep in our classes, readings, and discussions as well as study with and mentor students, putting into practice what we learn from our classes! It’s an exciting experience getting to grow in the knowledge of the Lord and see Him at work in the campus!  I’m so honored to get to do the apprenticeship this year! Fun fact: I’m fluent in three languages and love listening to other languages, even if I can’t understand them.

I'm Hannah Diaz, a native Texan. I completed my B.A. in English at Texas Woman’s University in 2019. It was there that I found Christ through college ministry. After going to my first core at the beginning of my freshman year, I knew I had found a home with FOCUS. Since then, I've committed my life to discipleship and haven't looked back! I decided to apply for the apprenticeship with FOCUS, knowing that I want to spread the amazing news of Jesus and love other students the way I had been loved throughout my years in college.

My name is Hanna Mason! I graduated from UNT with a bachelors in Special Education, and have been teaching for the last two years. I chose to do this apprenticeship because I felt God calling me to explore campus ministry as a career. I hope to learn how to better minister to college students, how to think pastorally, and how to grow in my faith and trust in God. A fun fact about me is that I am the youngest of around 36 grandchildren.

The crew from our UTD Fall Camp! We had a great weekend talking about making decisions and persevering through obstacles and challenges.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Welcome Week 2019 was STRESSFUL and SUCCESSFUL!

Welcome Week is a bit of a misnomer since it basically stretches from the beginning of freshmen moving in on August 13 to our last welcome event this past Sunday, September 1. UTD has it right: they're now calling it Weeks of Welcome!

FOCUS at UTD hosted 3 board game nights, 2 nights of zombie tag, 2 Field Day events (Ultimate Frisbee, Speedball, Bubble Soccer9-Square in the AirSpike Ball, and more!), Take A Freshman to their Classes (campus tour), carpools to church on 3 Sunday mornings, a United Worship night with the other ministries on campus, Games on the Mall (with 4 square and frisbee and spike ball), our FNF and TNF kickoffs, and 2 ethnic specific outreach events. We also helped with 2 huge international student outreaches, the Garage Giveaway furniture drive and the Big Howdy, which had over 1000 international student in attendance. We got 350 interest cards at that event alone!

The 2 ethnic-specific outreach events were a new experiment this year, and they went great! On the first Tuesday of school, we hosted a Latin American social. Then, on Thursday, we hosted an Asian American social. We had over 70 students come to each! Our hope was to communicate to the campus that we are a diverse ministry with a desire to welcome all ethnicities into our community. We also wanted a chance to tell them that while we know being in a monoethnic group might be more comfortable, participating in a diverse group like FOCUS has the potential for greater growth all around.

Part of the circle at our Worship & Boba Tea Asian American social.

Part of the crowd at our LatinXplosion event playing a Mexican Bingo game.

Some sweet stories from our core leaders after the LatinX event.
Looking back, our weeks of welcome were a huge success, and both our large fellowship night and our cores are off to a great start! We took some time as a staff to go out on Lake Lavon and play for a morning--no work involved! It was really relaxing and rejuvenating. My good friend John Von Runnen was kind enough to take us all out on his boat.

The full-time UTD staff members and apprentices right after we got off the lake.

Student Testimony

And just in case you want to see a pic from our FNF Kickoff...

Thanks for all you do to make this mission a success! We couldn't do it without many prayers and generous donors!

Showcase Invitation!

I'd love to see you all there!