Pivotal Place for Student Ministry

This is a dangerous post but I’ve got to write it.

I was in a conversation with a long-time friend of mine, Paul Martin at http://www.beingministry.com. He is still going strong in student ministry…as am I, albeit in a different role and different way. This is what he said to me:

“It’s (student ministry) at a pivotal place, realizing the faults of the past with little direction for the future.”

His words have echoed in my mind for days.

I’m part of our student pastor search team. We’ve looked at so many resumes, had quite a few conversations with a number of candidates. While we have found a few great candidates (and are taking our time getting to know them before we rush in to hire), BUT the overall picture of what we are seeing is causing great concern in me.

And my friend’s comment captures the overall sentiment.

Here’s my take …

The faults of the past vs. direction of the future….

The fault:
Youth pastors who had little to no theological depth, so “ministry” was activity based, event based. String enough of these together, sprinkle in a few “high” moments and have a wicked worship band.

Direction of future:
The good news is – more and more youth pastors are getting a theological education – not just a “youth ministry” degree. This is good. The bad news is – many are just adopting a system that is taught to them by their school or church without wrestling it out over the course of years.

One of the easiest examples to give is the whole Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. It’s easy to pick one and just trot out the party line of that crew. Memorize the verses and catch phrases of your particular bent, then find a church that lines up with your side and be done with it.

The problem with this approach is that students – particularly today’s students – are much smarter and savvier than to just take one party over the other. And this is a good thing. They can deal with and many times want the tension of two opposing understandings of theology.

My point is not to argue one side over the other. My point is to take one side without realizing there is another side AND that other side has SOME merit. AND that other side may just bring something to the table that you are missing (and need) is foolish, shortsighted, and counterproductive to the goal of good student ministry in the first place.

We want to make mature Christ-followers who are able to feed themselves spiritually. Not spoon-fed, indoctrinated, behavior-modified teens that will get their faith destroyed the first 10 minutes they are on a college campus.

The fault:
Believing if we changed their behavior, we’ve changed their heart.

Direction of future:
Good news here – most of us get that behavior change is just window dressing. The disturbing piece is that there is this focus on the “heart” and “feelings” and “knowledge” that behavior is completely forgotten.

Both need changing. One is fruit of the other but both are needed. If feelings, heart, and knowledge doesn’t lead to behavior change – it’s just as hollow as having behavior change without the heart. BOTH. WE NEED BOTH!! We need AND!

The fault:
Pinging student-ministry focus either totally towards evangelism (fun and wide) or discipleship (serious and deep).

Direction of future:
I think the problem here is application. I do believe most pastors understand – at least on an intellectual level – that we need both. We need AND – think Coke Zero. The problem here is reality – how do you plan that? Program that? Teach that?

I have a saying with our creative team at Western Hills. Lost people are lost. Not stupid. So it’s possible to teach deep, profound, biblical truths that connect and make sense to people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. It takes a bit more work and forethought. It means being intentional about a lot of different things. It means getting lost people around the table and listening to them. What connects with them? What doesn’t? It means engaging – not dictating. It’s possible but it will require time. Speaking of time…

The fault:
Youth pastors who left a church the minute their bag of tricks were up. Or they got crossways with an elder or the senior pastor. Or whatever else. We’ve all heard the statistic – which 80% are made up anyway and the other 20% are lies – that the average life span of a student pastor in a church is 18 months.

Direction of future:
My hunch is that statistic is actually pretty close to the truth but in a different way. What I mean is – I can’t count how many resumes I’ve seen. And while I haven’t done the exact math, the numbers at a glance aren’t pretty. For every person that stays at a church 5 years of more, there are 8 others that have a string of church “experiences” each lasting somewhere between 12 to 24 months.

Another way to say this – perhaps there are some churches and some youth pastors who are just always going to be an 18-24 month experiment. Maybe it’s the church’s fault because they rush to hire or don’t hire right. Maybe that church is just a hard place to work, maybe they don’t hire thinking long term. Maybe it is the person’s fault. They are immature and run at the sign of first conflict. Maybe they underestimated how much their spouse would hate living in Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland – you are an easy target.) Maybe they are the proverbial “wandering soul” that just likes to move. Whatever the case – there just may be some places like that.

Just like there are going to be places where it’s possible to stay forever. Maybe not all in the same position or doing the same job.

The fault:
Lone ranger leadership, siloing out student ministry, setting up youth as it’s own church not tied to larger body of Christ.

Direction of future:
There is a healthy emphasis on team now. It’s good.

I feel like a parrot. The word I keep coming back to is AND, not OR. BOTH, not either. Youth Church doesn’t work, never has. You just get a bunch of overhyped, immature Christ-followers who can’t run the marathon. They aren’t deep enough to finish the race. No youth ministry at all – that doesn’t work either. Each age, level of maturity needs a place to figure out their faith. They need that space and time to put the puzzle together on their own. We give them the pieces, the space and the time. We help coach them as they seek to put their puzzle together.

That space and time is CRUCIAL to development. They will need others in the room with them – older, wiser people but they don’t need those older, wiser people to do it FOR them. They need a place to practice their gifts and faith within the larger church context as well. We (the larger church) need to see them working their gifts because they are bringing something we need. BOTH, AND.

I’m cautiously optimistic on this front.

I Promise I’m Almost Done Rambling
There are some things that are never going to change in student ministry. NEVER.
More crucial decisions that effect the rest of our lives are made in the teenage years than any other time frame. That hasn’t changed in centuries, won’t change. Teens still crave relationship – deep friendship and connection – more than anything else. A teen captured by Jesus has a lifetime of Kingdom impact in front of them. There is no better “return on investment.” If you want to reach a teen – you have to earn the right to be heard.

Those haven’t changed…probably won’t change.

I’m just having a crisis of faith that this generation of youth workers get that.

I know that sounds like the waxings of an old, bitter youth pastor. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t just contained within student ministry. I wonder if there is a generation of youth workers behind me that are going to repeat the same mistakes because they won’t listen, won’t grow, and maybe are too focused on trying to be cool, accepted, relevant, or popular than they are trying to be more like Jesus.

In spite of this – I am still encouraged. Because the ones who DO get it – they are and will continue to make – a GINORMOUS impact for Christ with teens. And that is the kind of place I want Western Hills to become.

End of ramble. End of line. (HT to all my Tron buddies.)


2 thoughts on “Pivotal Place for Student Ministry

  1. Love this thought: “Teens still crave relationship – deep friendship and connection – more than anything else. A teen captured by Jesus has a lifetime of Kingdom impact in front of them. There is no better “return on investment.” If you want to reach a teen – you have to earn the right to be heard.”

    Replace “teen” with “people/person”…still applies. Maybe that tells us something??


  2. Good thoughts from an old, bitter youth pastor! Just kidding!
    I also love your thought about teens craving relationships. I can say from personal experience that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the relationship of guys like you, Harry, JLo, etc. You guys put the time and effort into earning my trust and relationship. Students need adults in their lives who will go through the ringer with them, not just bail at the first sight of it getting hard. They already have too many adults doing that to them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s