Continuing the discussion on finding more creative means of student ministry (specifically as it relates to our “big group” meetings), I discussed the role of embracing the creativity of students and volunteers as a means of empowering them to take up the ministry as their own, rather than being passive spectators to our ministry as youth pastors and ministers. In this post I will address the role of creative approaches to student ministry in helping our students become integrated into the larger church body, and in the following post I hope to address a few of the more practical aspects of a creative model.
Undeniably, the most important issue facing student ministries today is the question of how we bridge the gap for our students between the energy and involvement of our ministries into the often (perceived) less-engaging church body as a whole. Numerous news articles and studies released even within the past year are revealing what a lot of us in student ministry have known for a while: even the most engaged students in high school church ministry will more likely than not drop out of involvement in the church at some point during or after college. Whether it’s that their faith is destroyed by secularist, pagan professors in college or that we just never had their attention in the first place, we are not doing an effective job at walking with our students as they “leave the nest” for the first time.
I want to suggest that, in part, our “mini-church” model of youth ministry is to blame.
We want our students to graduate from high school and from our ministries and be able to integrate into the church body as a whole, and yet we have trained them to not need the church body as a whole throughout the 4, 6, or 12 years we have had them in our ministries.
- We want our students to participate in worship through song with the whole church congregation, and yet we have provided them with our own worship times where we sing songs that they like in a style they’re used to.
- We want our students to get involved in community groups in the church, and to learn and grow from interacting with people who are different from them, yet we have sequestered them in a ministry where everyone is relatively the same as they are. We have not trained our students to appreciate the wisdom and experience of different people because we have never provided them the opportunities to do so.
- We want our students to appreciate and learn from a sermon, yet we’ve trained them on ten minute “talks” that are directly written for their level and their experience. They have not needed to actively engage with a sermon written for a whole church because they’ve received biblical truth written directly to their experience.
The bottom line is this: as long as we provide the more relevant and “cooler” substitute for what the larger church already provides, we will be training our students that the larger church is “out of touch” and “not for them.”
We need to adopt a model of youth ministry that acknowledges the role of the larger church in the lives of our students now, not just when they graduate. Rather than providing the cooler substitute, we should be pointing our students to engage with the church presently while providing them the additional resource of our ministry to them as youth pastors and leaders.
When we do this – when we are free from feeling like we have to provide students with worship experiences and “talks” because they are already getting this with the church as a whole – we have much more freedom in our ministries to pursue creative means to help our students engage with what they are receiving in the local church on their level.
So we no longer take 30 minutes for a lengthy talk where we exegete Scripture for them, instead using that time to allow students to engage in activities of worship (not merely through singing) where they put action to the truths they are learning. We can move outside of our youth rooms and stages where we teach from, getting on the ground in service opportunities in the community or placing our students in contexts where they are confronted with the realities of their faith in life. A youth pastor friend of mine, for example, took his junior high boys out to a graveyard during one of their service times, exposing them to the reality of death and engaging them in conversation on what it means to really live. Talking about death from the stage is one thing; talking about death while standing in the midst of gravestones is another. For students, who already engage and learn experientially, creative approaches like this have the potential to make real to them the truths learned through the larger church.
If we want our students to engage in the activities of the church, we can’t expect them to do so on their own. We must begin to train them during our ministry to them, because we can’t expect them to automatically adapt to something they’ve never had to practice. Our “student ministries” in the church then becomes a ministry of relationship and experience. Discipling them intentionally, and providing experiences that challenge and reinforce the truths they are learning through their involvement in the church.
If we allow ourselves to think outside our “mini-church” mindset of youth ministry, we are free to engage students with more than just words, while pointing them to whole-church integration for the source of worship and teaching in their spiritual lives. So when they leave home and leave our ministries, met with the challenge of engaging the local church on their own, it won’t be the first time, and thus not the last time either.