A Chemistry Conversation with Justin Knowles
Dan Navarra, Chemistry Staffing Church Coach, talks with Justin Knowles from Sandals Church to talk about:
- The newly emerging online hybrid youth ministry model
- The best practices for youth ministry in a global pandemic
- What every church needs to be focusing on as we look into the future of youth ministry
Justin Knowles is the Youth Network Lead at Sandals Church in Riverside, CA. He oversees the student ministry across all 11 Sandals Church campuses. He hosts Youth Ministry Hacks Podcast with Matthew Ferrer, loves to write about his ministry journey on the DYM Blog and he teaches at camps, retreats and trainings. He and his wife, Kristin, have 2 sons.
- Twitter: @justinknowles3
- Instagram: @justinknowles3
- Email Justin for speaking engagements inquiries
We'd love to hear how you're doing in this season. As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for leaders, churches, and teams all over the United States!
Read the Full Transcript
Justin Knowles: For sure. Well thanks for having me to be a part of the conversation and try to navigate this crazy thing. The best way to describe all this stuff, I feel like we're flying the plane as we're building it. No one knows what they're doing.
Dan Navarra: It's in the air.
Justin Knowles: It's running, but we're kind of piecing it all together. But yeah, I'm Justin Knowles. I am the youth network lead at Sandals Church, which is based in Riverside, California down here in Southern California. We have eleven campuses. Ten of them are in Southern California, so within an hour's drive of our base campus. And then we have one up in Fresno that we started like three months before all the pandemic hit, so that's super fun. And so I get to oversee and get to work with all the youth pastors at each one of those campuses, and we get to do youth ministry across California which is super fun. It's a pretty diverse church in the sense of socioeconomically .We have really richy rich neighborhoods. We have really not so richy rich neighborhoods. So figuring out how to do youth ministry in all these different kinds of contexts is super fun. Of how to keep it Sandals but adjust accordingly. Been there for a year, but in student ministries this is my thirteenth year of youth ministry, which is crazy. And then I have a wonderful wife, Kristin. We've been married coming up on eight years. We have two kids, Graham and Wade, three and a half and nine months.
Dan Navarra: Wow.
Justin Knowles: Yeah. So great. And I do a lot of stuff with DYM, Download Youth Ministry, write on a blog, help navigate their Facebook group, and then I also have a podcast called Youth Ministry Hacks where we just talk about youth ministry with my friend Matt.
Dan Navarra: Sweet. Cool man. So the reason I reached out to you is because Sandals, at least from my perspective, they're one of the first churches to say we need to pivot, pivot quickly from what we kind of went all in on it in one season, kind of reimagined this whole thing, and I just saw you doing that. You share a lot of best practices and stuff in the communities that you and I are both a part of as youth pastors. Give me some of the practical things that you and your team are focusing on right now with ministry season kind of kicking off for the fall and none of us can meet indoors right now. Just what are you guys focusing on as here's what we're actually trying to do. Kind of name the wins, you know what I mean?
Justin Knowles: Yeah. Tonight, at least when we're recording it, this is our second week back to be in person. And so we are, this last weekend was our first weekend that our church opened up. They did indoors, outdoors, and online. So it's just kind of like choose whatever you want, whatever you feel most comfortable with, that's what you have. And youth what we have done and what we are focusing on is, at least in this season we haven't gone back to the "normal" youth group Wednesday night welcome and a game and everybody sits in the main auditorium and you have the screens and you do all the stuff and you give away prizes and then you watch the sermon and all that. We're strictly, I've always said if you can only do one part of youth ministry and you had to cut everything else and you had to only do one thing, my answer's always been small groups, and that's essentially what we're doing. We're doing small groups, that's kind of it. Each campus does something a little bit different, and we're kind of just doing - every campus, they roll out a tv outside and they are watching the - because we were already set up to do, I'll preface that, really well to pivot online because we were already video messages. We already before this, every campus -
Dan Navarra: For youth group?
Justin Knowles: Yeah, for youth group. All of our campuses were already watching messages via video. And so it actually wasn't that big of a pivot or turn for us because we were already doing it. So now they're watching, we've shortened the services where it's just a quick intro, the message, and then an outro. For those only watching online. And then just the messages are being played for those on campus, and then they basically go into small groups. Or they just watch on YouTube Live with their phone and device all in the group, like with their small groups together. And so basically, we're only doing small groups right now. And for us, that's our win. Can we get our students back into small groups. virtually? It was working for a while, and then after a thousand weeks of doing it, we feel like we had been, like you saw, every attendance I feel just went [downward motion with hands] da da da da da. And so for right now our win is that. It's small groups, getting them involved. And then we can talk a little bit more about the biggest change for us is to do what we're calling a hybrid group which is both in person and digital at the same time.
Dan Navarra: Hold off on that for one second. I've been all in on the small group model myself as well. At least, I probably would have answered that question if there was one thing I could do what would it be, it would be small groups. But what I found was, especially with quarantine protocols, if somebody's exposed and things like that, small groups, the backbone of that is the same students meeting with the same leaders each week and developing those long-term, trusting relationships with each other and with Jesus. And I just didn't feel like as a shepherd of this group that I could actually promise that I'd have the same leaders there every single week because of coronavirus and all that stuff. So we actually, we're pivoting to a discussion group model, which is whatever leaders I have on any given night with whatever students that can come to be there outdoors at any given night, okay. Let's say we have a hundred kids and ten leaders. Okay, no more than a dozen kids in a group, ready set go, let them kind of choose their own adventure a little bit more. We're just kind of doing this until the time changes because we're outside, so we're going to through October, kind of a ten-week semester, of outdoor discussion groups. So everyone will watch the message live, and then I'm going to stream it on Instagram, like real simple. And then I'll open up Zoom, and anybody who doesn't want to come or can't come can jump into a Zoom discussion group kind of week to week to week to week. It felt like we were abandoning our "this is the one thing that I really, really want," which is traditional small groups and saying what's the best I can do immediately right now. So that's kind of what our practice was. So you alluded to the hybrid model, and I know Sandals has been quick in climbing the ladder of saying, "How are we going to do this and do it really well?" Talk to me about what the hybrid model really is of having in-person and digital and how you're kind of executing it.
Justin Knowles: Yeah, it's been really interesting. So while we did, I think it was almost 19 weeks straight of online ministry, I think that was our, like where we just did, hey we're going to do a service, and we tweaked all this stuff to figure out the best way to try and make that happen.
Dan Navarra: So you ran all the way through the summer with that?
Justin Knowles: Yeah. From March whenever we all shut down until literally two weeks ago. There was a stint in there where we had two Wednesdays where we did come back, but then we were shut down again for another eight weeks. So yeah, we've been running hard online.
Dan Navarra: I imagine your metrics on viewership have just during summer have been rough.
Justin Knowles: Oh yeah. That was the hardest part. No matter where you're at, even while school and churches were shut down, the truth is most of our teenagers were not doing digital together. Like they were still hanging out. And so if I had a choice between going to a digital online thing or go hang out with my friends at the beach on a Wednesday, the beach is going to win. In person every single time. With the summer and stuff like that, especially California. I don't know what other states do, but California is the place like we've got the mountains, we've got the dessert, we have the beach. So students are just everywhere, right? So for us, what we saw over the time of being all online, one of the coolest things is that we had so many students - right now, it's the easiest time for students to invite a friend to see what church is all about. The line that we use right now is, "One click can change someone's eternity." And it's like hey, if you now a friend who would never step foot in a church, all you have to do now is share. And so what we saw is like all these new kids, we were plugging in students who have never been to church before through online. Because we had a text number, "Hey if you want to be in a group, text this number and we'll plug you in tonight." Right? Like, your nearest campus. And we had students do that every week. There's not been one week for the last 19 weeks that at least one student got connected into a group. And then the coolest thing about all of that is, so they join digitally with the Zoom small groups all that stuff. And when we opened up last week, they came for the first time because they actually, they saw what we were about, they saw our messages, they saw the group, they love the dynamics. And most of them who we've connected with over the last couple of weeks came for the first time ever in person. So we're like, oh crap, this is a thing. And so with this hybrid stuff is, we're looking at, it's two ways I think. Now - I mean, not now because at least in California there's no sports, there's no nothings, there's no extracurricular. But in the future, kid gets home late from practice, they can't join us physically. But guess what, they can join via Zoom and still be a part of their group and still have that and still watch the message because now it's all online and ready to go from the comfort of their home. So now there's really no excuse for any student to miss any kind of group, especially if they get home late. Or if they're not feeling good or they don't want to go that day. So you have that. And then now you have this new easy way to invite a friend where, hey, you don't want to come. Watch this. There's nothing else to do right now. Join that and then jump into my Zoom small group and just be a fly on the wall. Just watch the dynamic and just kind of answer the questions. Sandals, our vision is all about being real with ourselves, God, and others, and I think that's the vision, like they asked us if we wanted out own vision, and I was like we do because teenagers, like, that's the draw. If they want to be real. And so once they've seen it, they want to get plugged into it. So it’s actually kind of turned into a really cool evangelistic opportunity where all these new kids from the safety of their home, like this, are checking us out and experiencing what a small group is like. And now that they're coming to campus and actually being in physical community. I would have never thought that.
Dan Navarra: So for you, digital moves the front of the door to online, it lets people peer inside and see what's going on. They go, oh I like that. Is your win still actually to get them to show up in person? Or are you actually celebrating the win of, we've got a kid who's 100% digitally connected who lives two states away, but they're in this group every week. They watch and stream. It's transformative for their life.
Justin Knowles: Both. Right now, the way that it's just getting them there and getting them connected in community and talking about their faith. What we're moving to is we're working on the process of, what does someone in Texas if they want to get plugged into what we're doing, what does that look like, the time difference and all that kind of stuff. And the goal for us in our online, our campus would say the same thing, is their working on something called Sandals Church Anywhere where you can basically have a house church almost where, hey you like Sandals so much, now - we're always going to push the in person, always. Because we've seen over the last 19 weeks people get Zoomed out and there's something different about being in person. So even with people states away, we can say, well what friends are you going to bring to watch with you. And then you can still participate digitally with the content, but then you're going to have your group physically together. That's kind of the model that we're going to, even with our students outside -
Dan Navarra: Kind of microsite is the idea. Got it. So I know part of you guys' strategy and pivot has been to do some staffing and restructure. So talk about that.
Justin Knowles: Yeah. I'll preface it with this. I understand that not every church can do this, and I'm very grateful that our church has decided to go all in on it and let me have some room to be mad scientist experimenter and kind of see, okay let's see what this looks like. To give a little bit of background, our church we had an online presence, but it was run by our digital media team, so it wasn't like a "campus." What they did in this time is they moved - because we were all online, they were like, wow we need people like a campus - so they are hiring, or they put together a team of people who are like, if we launch a new campus, there's like five staff that they would formally launch with. They're doing the same thing with online. One of those being an online youth lead, meaning we are treating it like if it's our own campus, like Hunter Park campus or San Bernardino campus or Lake Air campus. They're treating it as if it's its own thing. Where this person's going to be basically in charge of, like how do we connect new students online of students who are both local, have connected to a local campus, or can't make it or whatever we just talked about, or out of state. How do we start to have small groups with students and parents, with all this Sandal Church Anywhere, if they have kids, how do we get their students plugged in with what Sandals Church youth is doing. Still be a part of our messages, still be a part of small group. So we're in the process now. We've got a guy who's pretty far in the process. We're like, okay, here's what that's going to look like. Basically what they're going to be doing is they're going to be working for me and our network team to create the content of what goes online. Because I don't want it just to be a repeat of what our in-campus services are doing. It needs to be specified specifically for our online audience who's watching, and then how do we connect them and start to build the systems, small group structure, leader training. How do we do background checks in other states, all that kind of stuff. What does that look like? I don't know. And so that's what this person we're hiring is going to try and figure out. How do we do that? That's kind of where we're going. And they're going to try and still do the hybrid model. Always push in person, but what does that look like.
Dan Navarra: Cool. It seems like your attitude is, things changed a lot with coronavirus, and we're not going to trying to go back to where we were. But we really want to say, what does it look like in 2021 to just do it differently. Like on some leadership podcast, "never waste a crisis." Let's use the crisis to move us in the direction that we were going to head anyway at some point.
Justin Knowles: I told our team two weeks ago, I said, "We need to stop saying, 'When we get back to normal.'" It's got to stop. We're not going to go back to normal. For us, what I said to them and I believe it, is when we go back to meeting in person like we did, if we were to go back to what we were doing, we're being irresponsible. And I think that we need to move forward like the old way of doing groups in person is done. What's been replaced of our old small group model has been replaced with the hybrid model where students can join into a group or invite a friend into it if they want to join via Zoom or digitally or whatever. And then figuring out, okay, what does online only look like. I think we can't go back. It's not reality. This is forever changing our culture and our world. And so therefore we need to move and pivot along with what that looks like.
Dan Navarra: Man. I so appreciate that. I know there's a lot of people who are watching what Sandals is doing, kind of taking best practices and learning from your mistakes and your victories. You guys have been so cool about celebrating both of those things and helping the communities around you and churches around you. Wrap up with this. What is one thing that you're gambling on going all in on. If you had to be, I know you're not a prophet but if you were out in the future, here's what it's going to look like and we're heading that direction. Give me one innovation you're gambling on with the future of youth ministry, one thing that needs to shift, move, change, become. It's a big question.
Justin Knowles: It is a big question. I'll do two because I already kind of touched on one. The gamble right now is doing, like I know a handful of churches that are hiring an online youth pastor. We're going all in and pretending like this is not going away and really navigating into, like having conversations with the leadership of our church, okay, not only have our immediate students at our campuses of how to do outreach, but how do I do outreach with students who would never ever ever ever known what Sandals Church youth is about, and then how do we connect them with online, like our YouTube channel where most of our stuff is. The line that we always use is, "We want to give them what they want so we can sneak in what they need."
Dan Navarra: That's huge.
Justin Knowles: Let them click around and let them like, you know the fun stuff and the fun bits and all that kind of stuff. Now there's a sermon clip or there's our live service. Then we have real talk where we're talking about real things. So let them snoop around on our page a little bit. So we're going all in on the digital media aspect of stuff and really having intentional conversations about how do we reach students who would never ever ever step foot or even know what Sandals Church youth is all about. And so we're going all in on that. And then two, for us is the video. So our video teaching structure is changing. Again, a lot of people don't do video teaching. I have learned to love it. When I got hired, that was one of the nonnegotiable for me of like hey this is what we do. I was like, okay cool I'll check it out. How do we make it better. But a lot of the stuff we're doing is we're editing into the videos, think more YouTube cuts of like video-style teaching. So if we're talking about stuff, it's like quick cuts and pictures pop up. It's like very, like if you were watching any of the famous YouTubers you see and how they have things pop up on the screen, that's how we're teaching and doing it via video for both online and in person that are a little bit more engaging. So just for instance, we're talking about Daniel and how he got snitched on. We'd like "snitches like stitches" type situation, and then there's little pictures of people who were like "no snitchers" that pop us as we're going through. Little cultural references that our students would know. If they've tuned out, they're back in now because they're like yeah I know that person. So we're doing a little bit more of that and kind of messing around with what that looks like.
Dan Navarra: Yeah, I know one of the things we're talking about doing. I'm a huge Dude Perfect fan with my kids. And so at the end of every Dude Perfect video, 50 million subscribers, they'll go, "Hey guys, thanks for tuning in. Hit the subscribe button below and here's last week's content right here." And we're like, oh. Maybe we should invite people to subscribe every single time we have content. Oh. We should point them to more content. Taking our tips from people who live in this space already, I think is super wise. Justin, I'm not going to take any more of your time. Thank you so much for being with us and for sharing some wisdom. And man, lots of success for you and your ministry because when one of us wins everybody wins. I appreciate your time.
Justin Knowles: Dude, thanks for having me on for the discussion. If anyone wants to hit me up about what we're doing, we're trying it. We don't got it nailed down. But if you want to talk about it, let's talk about it to try to help navigate this weird crazy time.
Dan Navarra: Awesome. Thanks so much, man.
Justin Knowles: Thank you.