Tuesday, December 5, 2017

3 November Highlights + an Alumna Testimony

#1 Pizza Theology

On November 12, we had possibly our best Pizza Theology yet! Bill Watson, a professor of Greek and New Testament from Criswell College came to teach about 500 students about the Sermon on the Mount for 4 hours. You would have been so encouraged to see how engaged the students were, paying attention, taking careful notes, and asking great questions. Bill even encouraged us about how unusual that is.

His lecture was incredibly challenging and encouraging. I'd encourage you to listen if you'd like to go deeper in understanding the greatest sermon ever preached. "Pizza on The Mount" (there's a powerpoint to follow along with and a handout to read on the same page.)
Fall 2017 Pizza Theology

#2 Compliment to the FOCUS Apprenticeship

There's a department at UTD that has employed two of our past apprentices (Katy Jordan and Ana Fineout) over the past few years. Ana has transferred to a new job within the university, and another past apprentice, Rachel Beckham, is applying for her job. I got this text from Katy a couple weeks ago:

Great compliment to the FOCUS internship today. We are working on picking people to interview for our new position and Bonnie said "We have had such amazing experiences with our FOCUS people so I know Rachel would be good." Kevin said "Yep, they seem to prepare y'all well."

We've worked hard to make sure our apprenticeship prepares our young people for whatever vocation they find themselves in, and it's paying off--people are noticing a difference. On top of that, these particular young women have placed themselves in the university context and not only make FOCUS look good, but bring honor to Jesus by being effective, being hard workers, loving others, and having a great attitude in their workplace.

#3 Keep FOCUS Growing Fund Update

Giving Tuesday was an amazing success! In 1 day, we raised $30,000 of our $50,000 goal!

Right now we have about $16,000 left to go, and we have great momentum. Please pray for God to give us exactly what we need to we will continue to rely on Him every step of the way.

If you'd like to join in, you can go to anyfocus.org/newchapter right now!

I'd like to say a special thank you to all of you who give financially to me, to another staff member, to support one of our campuses or the general fund, and/or to our special Keep FOCUS Growing Fund. We are so blessed by your support.

Alumna Testimony

This sweet young lady is working with orphans in the mission field. I know you'll be encouraged by her story.
Danyelle Graves de MorĂ³n
University of North Texas, Social Work, Graduated 2013 
"I always dreamed of being a missionary. My plan was to go to college to please my parents, graduate as quickly as possible, and then leave the country. As I got more involved in FOCUS, I began to see how purposefully the people around me shared their lives and faith. The Lord began to show me that ‘missions’ is not what happens in other countries but in our everyday lives. Through the example of dear friends, I learned how to love like Jesus even when it is not fun or easy. After graduation, the Lord opened doors for me to move to Bolivia as a missionary. Looking back on my time in college, I believe that the Lord prepared me through the friendships, community, and study in FOCUS far more than through my degree program. I am so thankful that the Lord, in His mercy, did not let me rush through college to please my parents, but used the ministry of FOCUS to lay a foundation for years to come."

Sunday, November 5, 2017

6 Great Guys

I wanted to comment briefly about the UTD students that I get to spend weekly time with this year. Four of them are the corefas in my peer team and one has stepped up to lead a peer team himself for his last year in school. (And then as a bonus, a testimony from a great Richland student I got to room with at SICM.)

Every staff person gets to spend time with amazing, servant-hearted student leaders. I'm so blessed to spend my time with these:

My Peer Team

Casey is a sophomore this year. He comes from a really strong Christian family. His parents are involved in ministry at the Village Church - Plano and his older brothers were a part of different campus ministries during their college years. He's a young man who is serious about being his best for God. I got to know him some at SICM this year, and I've loved getting to spend time with him weekly. He's committed, kind, gentle, and others-oriented. He pursues the guys in his group and also pursues me in friendship. I've already had guys share with me stories of how Casey has had a positive impact on them personally.

Austin transferred from Collin's Preston Ridge Campus, where he already led a core last year. He's also living at the same house that I am this year so I get to watch his life pretty closely. He got serious about Jesus as a high school student because of YouTube videos that had an impact on him. He has a very understated, dry sense of humor that I find hilarious.  He told me when I first met him that he's shy, but I haven't seen much evidence of that. I think he has guys coming to his core from every one of his classes. From one class, 3 different guys are coming! He's a bold young man that people really like to be around.

Jesse is the artist of the bunch. He's a senior this year and is leading core for the third year in a row. He cares deeply about people and builds relationships both through deep conversation and by creating unique experiences to share. He's incredibly genuine and is very earnest about developing authentic friendships. While he's the most spontaneous of this bunch, it doesn't keep him from following through on his commitments.

Luke is a great young man from sunny San Diego. He's a serious student in the engineering school and he thought long and hard about whether he would have time to lead a core. But once he made the commitment, he has taken it very seriously. He has chosen to love the guys in his group, and he thinks deeply about God's word and about God's people. 

At the beginning of the year, I assigned Luke and Jesse to write some questions to lead a core discussion on Ephesians 4:29. I planned to spend about 15 minutes helping them rework those questions into something workable, but I couldn't come up with a single suggestion! These two are very inquisitive, taking advantage of our times together to learn about me as a person as well as what I can teach them about the scripture and leadership. I enjoy every time I get to be with them.


I got to study "FOCUS on Jesus" with Sean the summer after his freshman year at UTD. He has an incredibly unique and vibrant personality, but is also a pastoral thinker who leads his guys with care and conviction. He has already led core for a few years as he worked and pursued his degree, so we asked him if he would spend his last year as a student mentoring corefas instead of leading a core himself. He is very much up to the task. He thinks like a staff minister, and I find our times together each week personally encouraging and challenging. Sean is intense, wise, good-natured, purposeful, and very serious about Jesus. He's also fun and really fun to be around. It's been very special to get to spend weekly time with him again a few years after we concluded our one-on-one Bible study.

Student Testimony

Joshua Erdmann (Richland College, Sophomore, Mechanical Engineering)
"In high school, I was the type of person that went out of my way to avoid people that I considered to be different than me. I was always looking for people that either talked the way I did or took part in the same things I liked. This led to superficial relationships and friendships. When I joined FOCUS, I really think God taught me that meeting people who were different than me - in every way - was a good thing. Through FOCUS, I have come to realize what it's like to have real relationships with people. In real relationships, you can talk to your friends about how you feel that day and not have to hide anything. When I first walked on campus at Richland, I was unsure about who I was or where I belonged. I thank God that I found a group that I feel like I actually belong to. Through FOCUS, God has been showing me that I belong wherever He has called me, and that it’s up to me to show others that they belong, too."

Please pray for these guys. Between them, they're investing in 40-50 other guys on these campuses! Thanks for helping make it possible for me to spend time training and equipping them. It's a joy and a privilege.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Our Biggest UTD Fall Camp Yet!

We've been back from Fall Camp for about a week, so I'm finally caught up on sleep. :)

Some students made cookies for everyone!
Last weekend, 208 of us from UTD, Richland, SMU, and TWU-Dallas took a day out of life to be together, worship together, share in God's word, and build deeper friendships. We had our biggest ever group from UTD! (Even though many of the students involved in FOCUS at SMU were busy with their parents for Family Weekend on that campus, we still had 8 come. We have around 25 students involved in core or one-on-ones there!) I think these higher numbers

The craft table was a big hit.

10 Students shared a part of their own story. 5 shared about how God has changed their view of what it means to be a Christian, and the other 5 shared about how the Lord brought them to the point where they were willing to say "Send me" to Him. ("Send me" is our theme for the year.)

I think most encouraging to me was watching how the students pursued one another in relationships and no one was being left out. During an open sharing time, student after student shared about how they have experienced the love of Christ in this community in a way they haven't experienced it before. We had a lot of international students and other non-Christians there, and I know they were impacted by the stories that were told.
We busted out the parachute we all remember from elementary school.
Spikeball is always popular, along with ultimate frisbee, flag football, giant kickball, speedball, and gaga ball.
Let's be praying that these new students will look beyond their experience of Christian community to see and experience Jesus, the one who made it possible and taught us how to love one another. I'm praying for many to call Him "Lord" for the first time this year.

We almost packed out this room for worship. But we've still got room to grow in the coming years!

Student Testimony

Jocelyn Payan (UT Arlington, Nursing, Sophomore)
"I grew up Catholic but never consistently went to church. I always admired the concept of community and was really saddened by the idea of not experiencing that within my faith because of my lack of involvement. When I came to UTA this desire to be involved in a Christian community only grew. After being greeted kindly at the FOCUS information table at orientation, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. God is really working here and I want to be a part of it.” As classes started in the Fall, I was contacted by a girl named Kaylee who consistently invited me to events and had a deep-rooted desire to get to know me. Through people like Kaylee, I was really able to see how those in FOCUS loved the Lord which directly translated into how they interacted with and loved people. As the semester began I was asked to go deeper in my faith and study scripture in a one-on-one study, Focus on Jesus (FOJ) with Alexis. Alexis really encouraged me and wanted to walk with me in my journey of building a relationship with God. Through this community, I was challenged to give love like I had received it. Although I didn’t know it, God had been working and was faithful to answer a prayer I hadn’t even thought to ask for. He blessed me with this community and an opportunity to share that with others. "
Thanks for actively loving students and other young people. I'm excited to see how God uses our investments in the years to come!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Off To A Great Start

First Friday Night

We made it through move-in and Welcome Week! These are the two most important weeks of our calendar year, and the student leaders and staff pastors have done an incredible job of reaching new students. We had our first FNF at UTD last Friday night, and we had well over 250 students come. Most of the new students come because someone meets and invites them. I sat in the back and looked around trying to find a visitor no one was talking to--impossible! It's so encouraging to know that our core value of welcoming new people hasn't been lost as our group has grown. I'm hearing the stories already of freshmen, both Christians and non-Christians, who are excited to be a part of Friday nights and cores this year. Please be praying for the student leaders as they start setting up one-on-ones in the coming days and weeks.

The most exciting thing to me is seeing that this isn't a community led by a minister or two; it's a community of ministers. The Lord is answering our prayers to send out workers into the harvest field.
The room we met in is very hard to capture in a photo, but this will give you a sense of how packed it was.

Student Testimony

I've had the privilege of spending some time with Michael this summer, and it's so cool to see what the Lord is doing in his life. He didn't grow up knowing the Lord but started going to church because a friend invited him near the end of high school. Coming to college while his faith was still in its infancy, he was especially vulnerable. He went to SICM in May and stepped up to lead a core this fall! He has a sweet heart, and I treasure the time I get with him. I can't wait to see him love others the way he has been loved.
Michael Murphey (Sophomore, UT Dallas, Computer Science)
"When I came to UTD, I felt really lost. I didn't have many friends, and it seemed as if my life had no direction at the time. I had known for years that I wanted to study computer science, but in the fall of 2016 I was doing little else, and it felt painfully meaningless at times. I decided to come to Friday Night Fellowship one night and met Mark Merola. Even though we were complete strangers, Mark took a particular interest in me. After sitting with me during the service, he invited me to come to more FOCUS events and to join his Core. I started coming to Core regularly and became friends with everyone there. With Mark and the rest of my Core, I gained a group of supportive peers that I could live life with and learn from. I grew significantly in my faith and also as a person. Through studying the Bible and discussing it with members of my Core, I learned more about who Jesus is and my relationship with him deepened. My relationship with Jesus also led me to examine who I was as a person and make changes to how I act. FOCUS added a lot of meaning into my life and helped me see who I want to be. I have become a Core facilitator for the 2017-2018 school year, and I now know that the path toward God is the path that I want to take my entire life."

Thanks for making stories like this possible through your prayers and financial investments and hours spent with young people!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

7 Days of Prayer as Students Move In

Students started moving in on campus this week and classes are about to start up. These are the most important couple of weeks in the year for campus ministry! Will you join me in prayer for the next 7 days?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Just Back From Staff Retreat

Staff Retreat

On Monday, our new apprentices joined our staff, and we headed off for three days of prayer, praise, personal sharing, and play to grow together as a team and prepare for the coming school year. As we sat in one session, with each person sharing about how the Lord called them to this mission, I found myself returning to one of my regular prayers--asking God to bring revival to our campuses and towns and cities. In that moment, the Lord gave me this word: "Revival starts here." 

I don't think God was telling me that the FOCUS staff is the hope of the world. I think He was telling me that revival starts with transforming lives, one at a time. And He's been doing that for a long time in FOCUS! I looked at my team afresh, listening to the stories of how various imperfect people over the years were used by God to move these amazing young ministers onto His agenda. I know one thing: I can't take credit. God has assembled this group of passionate and talented men and women to carry this mission forward. Their example challenges and inspires me. They take seriously the promises they have made to the community God has given them to pastor. 

Will you join me in praying for them? God has revival plans for these campuses, and they begin with people who are giving years of their lives to reach college students with the good news of Jesus.

The 2017-18 FOCUS Staff. This team will be reaching out to 11 DFW College Campuses this fall!
And this is the UTD team that I work with most closely! We'll also be driving outreach to Richland, SMU, and TWU-Dallas.

Student Testimony

Morgan Chappell (Senior, Texas Woman’s University, Communication Sciences and Disorders)
“I grew up in the Methodist church surrounded by various spiritual mentors. Though I had a good church upbringing, I don’t think I really knew how to truly seek God. My spiritual growth was consequently very slow, with many stops and dead ends. I knew God was there, but for too many years I believed that I could find Him by myself. It was not until I began dealing with crippling anxiety and depression that I began truly seeking God. The support from my church during my time in a psychiatric hospital gave me a new thirst for God and community. I found FOCUS late into my first semester of college in 2015. Since joining, the ministry continuously shows me the importance of community in growing our relationship with God. FOCUS has challenged my beliefs, encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, and even helped me to be more confident in my own skin. This year, I have been asked to be a student leader. Despite my fears of inadequacy, I know that I have been equipped with a community that will continue to guide and shape me into a better disciple, so I may go and make new disciples for God’s Kingdom.”

Thanks for your continued support financially and through prayer. God is preparing to do great things through our partnership this year!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Middle of Summer

Between various travels, I and my team have been hard at work selecting and preparing the student leaders for this next school year. It's going great! I'm so excited to minister alongside these amazing young men and women on campus. This month, please ask God to give us wisdom in selecting and training student leaders and also discernment in planning for the first weeks of the school year.

This Month's Student Testimony!

Ismael Garza (Senior, University of North Texas, Music Education)
"Growing up, I knew there was a God, but I viewed church as a place for people who were “good,” and I did not fit the bill. As a result, I was guarded in my friendships and viewed vulnerability with people as a weakness. Entering college, I suffered from severe depression because of the college drinking culture and a very unhealthy relationship, which ultimately led me to taking a year off of school. During that year I decided to work at a penitentiary to make ends meet. In prison, you fight for respect daily and often look behind your back in case you’d stepped on someone's toes and forgot. This is true for both for the inmates and the officers. As an officer, I learned a lot about the harsh reality of life but I also learned about the consistent presence of God. Once I went into a dorm full of inmates and had to settle down an altercation. One of the inmates said to me, “This is our home, and you only leave at the end of the day because we let you.” At nineteen years old I had seen and felt pain that most people my age would not experience for a long time, if ever. Those experiences only brought me closer to God. During that year one of my peers and friends from FOCUS, Kurt Doty, never lost touch with me and checked up on me regularly. I find it funny that when I had real questions to ask about faith and religion, God provided me a friend who could help me. God has always met me where I was, and although I could not see it until I started searching, I think the patience in the people God has blessed me with has truly exhibited what the Church is meant to be."

Some Quick Thoughts on What You Do

When I was up at SICM a couple months back, the sermon on Sunday morning hit me, and I wanted to share the main points with you. The preacher is a missionary to international students and he gave the congregation these encouragements:

1. Praying for missionaries matters more than you think. I know we ask for your prayers regularly and you rarely get to see how that plays out, but I do get to see what God does in response, and that's why I keep asking you to pray! Just yesterday the guy I had lunch with shared that when he told his undergraduate advisor that he was going to SMU next, she shared that she was a Christian and had done her degree at SMU. She said it was the "darkest" place she'd ever been and that those were the darkest years of her life. And that's where the Lord is sending us this year. 

Your prayers to face down the spiritual powers of darkness matter. Your prayers for God to set up divine encounters with students and staff who are seeking Him matter. Your prayers over hurting students matter. Your prayers matter more than you think. 

2. Hospitality matters more than you think. I think especially of international students, but also of the thousands of students who move to a new city and don't have moms or dads or brothers or sisters near. We have the opportunity to be a family to them. As Hebrews 13 puts it, "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers." Ron and Paula Hayes recently shared with me a story from some friends of theirs who had befriended and invited into their home an international student from the Middle East. He came over a number of times during his years in America and they built a meaningful friendship. When he moved home, he left them a large box with instructions not to open it until he was gone. Inside were lots of small wrapped gifts that he had brought from his home country to give to everyone who hosted him in their home during his years in the USA. When they asked him why he was giving them so many, he replied, "because you are the only ones who ever invited me over."

It doesn't take much to stand out in a culture that has lost the value of hospitality. You may not have access to international students or even college students. But we all have neighbors and people who visit our churches. Inviting people into your home matters more than you think.

3. You're sending more missionaries than you think. I started praying many years ago what Jesus told His disciples to pray for: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field" (Luke 10:2). God has been answering that prayer in a big way! You may pray for or be a financial partner with one or more FOCUS missionaries, but everything we do is designed to train students to be missionaries to their campus--in their classes and residence halls and workplaces and gyms and student unions. Last year we had at least 300 students who were studying the Bible one-on-one with someone. When you walk the campus, you see these little discussions happening all over all the time. 

Our theme for this next year is "Send Me." We're going to be heating up this value for our entire community, and I can't wait to see what God does in and through us. You are an encouragement and a support to me for sure, but you're sending more missionaries than you think.

A great big THANKS to each one of you who have helped us reach, win, train, and send members of this visionary generation into the world with the good news of Jesus. It matters more than you think.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Another Great SICM

At the end of SICM, students prayed prayers of commissioning over each other one campus at a time.
SICM was outstanding, as always. We took nearly 90 potential student leaders with us this year, and we all agreed it was our best group in years. I loved getting to know some of these young people who will be leading the FOCUS community in the years to come!

Here is a sampling of comments from students that popped up on Facebook after we got back (don't miss the last one!):

"This trip was filled with so many memories that I won't forget. I love these people and their hearts for Jesus so much. Washington is so beautiful and a great reminder of how mighty our God is. SICM taught me and equipped me to be a better missionary on my campus and for that I am so grateful."

"SICM 2017 in Washington was a life changing experience!! I learned so much about campus ministry and what it looks like to be a faithful disciple of Christ! I love everyone that went!!! God is amazing and I can't wait to see what He has next for his disciples!!!"

"I am struck by the feeling that God has met with me this week. He's met with just about everyone this week, but just making the application to myself and moving my faith from an intellectual truth pursuit to an emotional and relational reality has changed how I think about nearly everything. God has been bringing up these two ideas of "I have a great work planned out for you" (plural and singular), as well as Samuel's calling phrase of "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening". And I think I'm finally in a place where I can make Samuel's response my own. The Lord has great works prepared for all of us. The ultimate craftsman has invited us into his workshop with the express intent of letting us do our best to help him with his work. The redemption of all of creation, and we get to participate! AHHHHH! I don't know if that gets you excited, but it gets me hyped as all get out. This week has been a review, reminder, and introduction to a ton of things that have put me in a place where I can do nothing but serve the Lord."

Lots of people getting married!

I've definitely lost count of how many weddings I've done and been in the past few years. Because of our focus on college students and recent grads, someone's always getting married around here! The institution of marriage is in a state of disrepair in our culture, but we are doing everything we can to set these young people up for success. It starts with making and maturing disciples, carefully and purposefully. Then our 10-week pre-engagement material matches a young couple with an experienced guiding couple. Rather than focusing on classes, this is yet another place we believe "one-on-one is how it's done." No written curriculum can completely take the place of real relationships with people who will walk alongside you and share their wisdom along the way. We certainly can't prevent every problem married couples will face, any more than we could prevent all the problems single people will face, but we can set them up for success. We get rave reviews on this program from both participants and guiding couples, and we're working to make it better every year.

I love this picture! My college roommate Kris (one of the first FOCUS leaders) and his wonderful wife Cori led Joseph and Sarah through our "Guide to Decide" pre-engagement curriculum. This is just one of the ways FOCUS alumni love and serve current students. I got the privilege of officiating Joseph and Sarah's wedding earlier today!

Student Testimony

I think Michelle's story illustrates the challenging transition from youth ministry to college. God is using people like you to make sure someone is there to meet these young people where they're at!
Michelle Kim (Sophomore, Collin College - Preston Ridge, Nursing)

"I grew up going to church but didn't know how to have a relationship with Christ. It wasn't until I got involved in the youth ministry at my church that I really started to seek and encounter God. When the time came for me to attend Collin College I found myself in a dark place. I wasn't considered “youth” anymore. Many significant people in my life were no longer around, and I felt like a burden to those that were. I felt secluded and was reminded of my past failures, fears, and insecurities. I began to believe that my past defined me, and I felt worthless. In the midst of my anger and frustration towards myself, I turned away from Christ. I tried to do life on my own and quickly found out that relying on my own strength made everything feel impossible. I remember eventually falling to my knees and asking God for life transformation. That's when God led me to FOCUS and started to reveal Himself to me through the people there. Through their discipleship and outpouring of love towards me, I have been able to radically encounter God’s love. During my involvement in FOCUS, I have found my purpose in life--to know Jesus, and make Him known."

Thanks for your work and prayers and gifts to make success stories like these a reality. There are so many more I could tell!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Another Year Bites the Dust

Last night was our End-of-Year Party for the UTD ministry, and tonight is our final meeting with the leaders. This group of students has been such a delight to work with, and I'm sad to see so many of them moving on to their next endeavors. At the same time, though, we have an incredible group of younger students growing up to replace them, so I'm very optimistic about the coming years! God continues to bless this community.
These are the corefas that Peter and I mentored this year. What an amazing bunch! Not only are they great ministers, but they are so kind to us and so much fun to be around. 
Thanks for your investments in reaching UTD students this year. At our last Friday Night Fellowship, we had open mic sharing about what God has been doing in our community this year. If you have time to listen to it, I know you'll be encouraged:

Last Friday Night Sharing (Part 2 is a lot more personal, but if you have time there's a Part 1 as well.)

Student Testimony
This month our testimony comes from Richland College.
Catherine Long (Sophmore, Richland College, Echocardiography)
"God has used the community in FOCUS to make me a better friend to those around me. Throughout high school, I struggled with making genuine and lasting friendships. I had certain people I would spend time with, but there was no depth to our relationships. By the time I graduated, I sadly realized that I had no peer-friends who cared about what I was going through. In addition to this, I found it hard to empathize with those around me. It was a difficult experience that taught me the value of true, real friendship. During my first semester of college, I was involved in a car accident with my parents and three younger siblings. Those next two months were some of the darkest times of my life. I recall sitting in the emergency room and my small group leader, Nicki, calling to see if I was okay. I can’t remember what either one of us said, but I do remember in that moment feeling loved and cared for in a profound way. It was so precious to me. After some time in the ministry, my youngest sister, Emily, told me that she didn’t know what healthy friendships looked like until she saw how I interacted with my co-fa. God was shaping the kind of friend He wanted me to be, and through it, He was impacting the people around me! I am so excited to go on this journey that God has called me to: loving and serving those around me like Christ!"

Finishing up Christian History Class

I've spent a significant portion of my time this semester working my way through 2,000 years of Christian History with our apprentices and with our 1st & 2nd-year staff ministers. We used Sarah Williams' History of Christianity I & II as the foundation for our discussions, along with other readings and activities. I think at first those young ministers struggled with the material because they couldn't think of anything to DO with it. It's always a temptation to want immediate practical applications for what we study. But as we approached our current day, we all began to see how these things fit together, and how our own story is just a part of a much bigger heritage.

I grew up in a tradition that didn't value that heritage very much at all. We talked a lot about getting the church back to the 1st century, but had mostly disdain for centuries 2-18. In fact, I'm not sure that we thought there were actually any true Christians in the church until we came along in the early 1800's! :) It has been powerful in my own life to learn about my older brothers and sisters who have passed the batons of true faith down through the ages. True, there are many stories of those batons being dropped in tragic, and often infuriating, ways. But for each of those, there are stories of others who came and picked them back up to run faithfully again the race marked out for us.

Our Christian family has engaged so many different cultures and languages and time periods and peoples. We've rethought our faith over and over, finding new, and often better, ways of thinking about God and ourselves and this world. More than anything for me, this study has been humbling. I realize the tremendous debt of gratitude I owe to so many who did their best without so many of the advantages I have. They did their best, even when their best wasn't very good. And God, with grace overflowing, did what He does best--He made their paltry efforts good enough, and He allowed the leaven of the gospel to continue to work its way through the dough of this world. I can't wait to see what this place is like when the Master Baker is done with it.

And something funny to end with...

The seniors at UTD made a video to thank the staff where they imitate us. The first half is funny, then there's a different senior sharing about each of us. It's pretty amusing.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Great Things Happening

My Amazing Staff

The 2016-2017 FOCUS Staff Team
This amazing bunch of disciples is the staff I get to work with to impact nearly 1000 students this year. I couldn't ask for a better team! I remember praying for just one more quality person to work with me at UTD, and God has blessed me with nearly 30! I wish I could tell you about every single one of them and the incredible work they do.

Spring Showcase Was a Big Success!

Our Spring Showcase to raise scholarship money for SICM was a huge success! The performances were amazing, around 1000 people came, and we raised about $18,000 in one night! That will go a long way toward helping pay for the trip. We're over a month out and are closing in on having the whole thing paid for. Thank you to those of you who came out and supported these budding leaders!

I'm not sure how well you can see how big the crowd was from this picture, but it was huge!
A Week of Outreach on Campus

The week before that we hosted 10 students and 2 interns from Western Washington University for their annual Student Spring Impact (SSI) trip. They spent the week partnering with our students to reach out to students at UTD, Richland, and TWU-Dallas. They met so many students, hung out with them, and engaged them in meaningful conversations. We've had new people joining cores and having ongoing spiritual conversations because of that.

We've been experimenting this year with outreach activities that better fit with our core values of real relationships and deep community. We still want to have spiritual conversations with people we run into on campus, but we want those to turn into lasting friendships where we can model the love of Christ. As we've tried out outreach based around fun activities like board games and spike ball and coloring books (it's like Welcome Week but in the Spring!), we keep hearing from students who are lonely and have no friends. I'm so thankful that God has put His people on campus and has given us the desire to welcome new friends into our hearts and lives. I can't wait to watch these new friendships bear good kingdom fruit!

The SSI crew from Bellingham sitting on the UTD welcome sign.
Student Testimony

Jon's story illustrates how often campus ministry involves helping young people process life and make plans that will bless them in the future. So many of our young people don't come from families that have the knowledge and experience to help their kids navigate college and career. I love hearing stories like these!

Jon Smith (First Year, North Central Texas College, Web Design)
"When I first moved to Denton, I wanted to find a church group that I could connect with like the one I had back home. I prayed fairly frequently for a church at first, but after a few months I gave up. I started to feel extremely lonely and somewhat depressed without my former church family nearby. A little over a year later, I was invited to FOCUS by my roommate, Brad. At that point, I wasn’t a student so I felt strange going to FOCUS. But Brad was persistent, and he invited me to his Core as well. It was in that Core that I began to feel the sense of community I had lost. I had a group of guys opening up to me and giving me the opportunity to do the same. 

"My Corefa asked me about my plans and goals for the future and I told him, at that time, I didn't really plan for the future. He asked me about school, and I told him I wasn't interested in school. I thought it was silly and a financial waste. He brought this conversation up multiple times, and I always shut him down by telling him I had no reason to go to school, but I could tell it was important to him. I finally asked him why he cared so much about something I couldn't care less about, and he told me he cared about my future. 

"I finally decided to hear him out, and he started talking to me about North Central Texas College. We researched NCTC together and found it had programs I was interested in. We also knew that FOCUS was wanting to build a ministry there. I was afraid to become a student, still using finances as an excuse, but so many people were willing to walk me through the financial aid process. After making the decision to become an NCTC student, I committed to being a leader as well. God not only answered my prayer for community, but also radically changed my life as a student and a disciple."

Thank you for committing to benefit these young people by serving, giving, and praying. So many of them you may never meet, but it is my conviction that God sees every single person you impact directly or indirectly, and He never forgets!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Hallie, Pizza Theology, and Prayer

Hallie's Story

Hallie Tran (Junior, UT Arlington, Nursing)
"I grew up in Vietnam with Buddhist parents. My aunt shared the gospel with me and my brother, and I became a Christian when I was around six. Looking back, I can see how God was pursuing me and leading me to grow in my relationship with Him by giving me a desire to go to church.

When I came to America, my host families helped me grow in my faith. My parents came to visit me and my brother after a couple years. My parents thought that because we were thankful to God, we were not thankful to them, and they were really angry. They were in Vietnam working hard to provide for me and my brother to go to school in the States. They made us choose: we could stop following God and they would continue to support us financially, or we could follow God and He would support us. My brother and I chose God. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to transfer to UTA, but God provided a way. My parents, after my aunt spoke with them, decided to continue supporting me until I graduate. My relationship with my parents has changed a lot since that conversation. In some ways, I feel like they disowned me and my brother. My parents aren’t really my family anymore. But FOCUS has since filled that role, and the people in this community have become my family. FOCUS has challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone and invest in people. It has been a safe place for me to have hard conversations. Because of FOCUS I have deep friendships. I was accepted to a nursing school in Florida, and seriously considered going, but decided to stay at UTA because I saw what God was doing on this campus. I have so much to be thankful for and can see the great things that God is doing in my life and in those around me."

Pizza Theology on Race

The view from my seat in the back at Pizza Theology.
Last weekend we had our spring Pizza Theology and over 400 came to think deeply about the topic of race, ethnicity, and culture from a Christian perspective. Two of my UTD staff guys, Peter and Sirak, did the primary teaching, and they were amazing! Peter laid out a biblical vision of race from Genesis to Revelation. Sirak (who is also a sociology professor at Richland College) laid out some sociological and historical foundations for how we think about race and the current state of affairs. In addition, we had 13 testimonies from within our community that reflected some of the incredible diversity we encounter each day (including one from Hallie who is highlighted above). Each of those testimonies included a pastoral word, and I was blown away by the pastoral insight and skill of our students. We are truly raising up a generation of leaders!

One recurring theme was the importance of listening. We often repeat Stephen Covey's axiom to our students: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

If you have an interest in the topic, the audio and study guide for pizza theology are posted here.

Request for Prayer

We have been very blessed, but in a community of 800+ students, there are always some really tough things going on. Here are a few:

  • Suicide - We always have students grappling with suicidal thoughts. This semester we have students who have checked themselves into psych wards for their own protection, students with close friends and family members who are suicidal, and students who are grieving over loved ones lost to suicide. Please pray for special grace for these students and for all those who are are seeking to love and support them.
  • Death of loved ones - We have students this semester dealing with the recent or impending deaths of parents, not to mention grandparents and other loved ones. Please pray for God's comfort in their mourning.
  • Recovering from abuse - In our recent student survey, 12.5% of our students said they had been the victim of some sort of physical abuse, and 19.8% said they had experienced some sort of sexual abuse. 1 in 5. So many of these students are opening up about these experiences for the first time and just beginning to process them. Please join me in my prayer is that God would heal those wounds and redeem those experiences. Another of our axioms from Alan Pickering: "Your misery can become your ministry."
I could go on and on, but I say this to remind you to pray for these students. And pray for us too, that we can effectively minister Jesus Christ to them and not fall into the trap of just being amateur counselors instead of true pastors.

Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for doing what you can to bless these students. Together, we're having an impact on so many.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

SMU, Here We Come

First off, we had a great Winter Camp a couple weeks back. So many good things are coming out of it, with many students making important decisions and seeking God more than ever before. One of our UTA students made a video highlighting the experience and I wanted to share it with you so you could get a picture of what it was like:

Student Testimony

Josh is a student that I had the pleasure of mentoring during his first year as a student leader. He's a great guy who has invested in our younger students the past three years, and he asked for the opportunity to share his story!
Josh Carpp (Senior, University of Texas at Dallas, Mechanical Engineering)
"Before coming to college, I was in a desperate search for friendships. I had been the unfortunate recipient of a drug-induced fight. One night, people who I thought were my friends got high on cocaine while we were hanging out. All it took was a dispute over petty differences to send one of them over the edge, and it ended with me getting choked until I passed out. Thankfully, God brought me through that alive. However, this incident led to bitterness, rumors, and the loss of mutual friends. So, I ended high school not having many people that I considered friends. After all that, I was ready for college.

"Going into my Freshman year at UTD, I made it a priority to seek out friendships and Christian community. I found out about an event that FOCUS was having during welcome week and went to check it out. There I met Sagar Gandhi who, after just one conversation, invited me over to his house to play FIFA (a soccer video game). I was taken aback by this generous invitation and willingness to invite me into his life when he knew very little about me. I decided to go to Sagar’s Core and get more involved in FOCUS, where I developed strong friendships. Praise God for Sagar Gandhi’s invitation, the friendships I have made, and for how much leaders in FOCUS have taken time out of their busy schedules to pour into a broken and unimpressive sinner, like me, ever since!"

Starting SMU

We've been given an amazing opportunity to start a ministry at SMU in partnership with Canterbury House (a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas). We've been praying for years about starting a ministry on that campus, but because private schools are so different and have a number of barriers to entry, we knew it would have to happen in God's timing and in His way. The second half of 2016, He rolled out the red carpet for us! Canterbury has a building next to campus and a heart to reach people with the gospel. However, they don't have any students or campus pastors. So they've invited us to combine resources and run that ministry. Laurence Glenesk will stay on our UTD team but will be spearheading our work at SMU as we get started.

Tonight we had our first event down there to pray about what God is calling us to. We already have personal connections with a number of interested students from this event and from other connections, and Laurence will be following up one-on-one with each of them. Please pray that God will show us exactly what He's calling us to, will continue to open doors and provide connections, and will get us ready to launch something awesome in August!

Our First Full-Time Administrator!
Isabelle is great!
As of January 1, our general admin Isabelle has moved from part-time to full-time! She has been working with us most of 2016 while she finished her degree at UNT, and we are so excited to have her focusing all her energy with us moving forward. She's sweet, competent, spiritual, and fun to work with. She supports our on-campus pastors, and she will be doing some pastoral ministry with us along the way as well. During her time as a student, she led core, led the entire worship team in Denton, and helped us start our ministry at NCTC. The need to have someone full-time is a testament to how much our shared mission has grown these last few years!

To those of you who pray for this ministry and to those of you who invest financially, thank you for your support and for helping make all this happen!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Winter Camp is this Weekend!

We're gearing up for our biggest event of the year. We have around 550 people registered already and they're still signing up. Please be praying that the Spirit would move powerfully this weekend. We have a lot of students coming who are still investigating Jesus and a lot more who are Christians but are on the fringes of discipleship and Christian community. Winter Camp can be catalytic for spiritual growth and decision making. We're looking forward to seeing what God does--He always shows up in a big way!

And if you'd like to come out to visit our camp this weekend in Van, TX, just let me know and I'll get you the details.

Student Testimony
I love our student testimony this month. Not only is Chiazo one of our amazing student leaders, she's a senior who has served our community on two campuses. When I think about how the Church in America is losing over 75% of our young people as they move through college, I rejoice at every story like this where a young person's faith flourishes and becomes about impacting others in the crucial college years and beyond. And we have so many stories like this that we could tell!

Chiazo Akagha (Senior, University of North Texas, Choral Music Education)
"Before college, I spent a vast majority of my time at church, from volunteering to mission trips. After graduating, I was nervous about what Christian community would look like now that I had to find it for myself. I prayed for a group of friends who cared about me. I was at the gym six weeks into my freshman year and while I was working out on the treadmill, something made me turn around (while running 80% speed) and I saw a banner for FOCUS. I visited that Friday night and stayed because people sought out His Word, ways to practice His teachings and made Christ-likeness a lifestyle- specifically, Autumn Priestley, a senior at the time I joined FOCUS. I constantly asked myself 'why would someone who’s about to leave college want to spend time with me?' She spent time with me because of the lessons she learned through FOCUS. As I make my transition into the 'real world' and becoming a teacher, I will remember to seek to understand and then be understood when working with students, parents, and other teachers. I will look at my students and love them. I will consider their needs and provide for them, whether that means that I attend their sporting events or support them through tough times. I will show them who Jesus is through my teaching, patience, and discipline on and off the podium. It’s because of my involvement in FOCUS that I am able to know what it looks like to be a disciple in the 'real world.'"

Thanks for partnering with me and the other FOCUS pastors so we can invest in students like Chiazo. That investment will pay off in so many ways, on and off campus, in the years to come.

Update on the Keep FOCUS Growing Fund: We've reached about $46,000 of our $55,000 goal! Amazing! We still have some donations coming in and you are still welcome to invest in our #next20 years if you'd like.

Developing Our Pastoral Team

We are back in August and ramping up for the school year! We have an amazing pastoral staff, and an outstanding group of student leaders. At...