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WORDS: “Youth Group” vs. “Student Ministries”


“Youth Group” vs. “Student Ministries”

Right now we’re making some changes at the church where I work, including the language we use to talk about our ministry to and with teenagers. When I was in high school, I loved “youth group.” We got together at least twice a week, played games and learned about faith. We had a name for our group, dabbled with a logo, and when you brought a friend to church you were inviting them to “youth group.”


But without meaning to, the way we spoke about our ministry to teens communicated something to outsiders. Our language created an unspoken and unintended boundary that outsiders had to cross. We had defined ourselves as a group with the language we used for ourselves, and for an outsider, you were immediately placed outside of this unspoken group, until you crossed some unspoken boundary that made you “one of us.” A similar boundary exists even when we refer to our group with a specific brand or logo or ministry name. It becomes something I am either in or out of, in the midst of an adolescent world that is obsessed with identity and belonging.

“Student ministry” conveys a different image, and an image that, for teenagers who already feel excluded from church and society, is a needed an appealing way of thinking of ministry to teenagers. Whereas “youth group” suggests both an age limitation and a defined set of people, “student ministry” suggests both learning and action.

To be a student is to be learning and growing. And while the focus of our “student ministries” is on adolescence, it’s not limited to that age group. “Youth group” communicates an age-defined set: a group of young people. Yet the deeper reality is that working with adolescents as a leader will cause YOU to learn and grow perhaps even more than it will cause students to grow. For many, helping with the student ministry of the church is the first step toward leading in other ministries. If you can successfully lead a small group of sixth grade boys, you can lead anyone anywhere. So the “student” of “student ministries” is about teens; but beyond that, it’s about being a place where anyone can come to learn and grow and be challenged and equipped to lead in other places.

Referring to what we as a church do for our adolescents as “ministries” rather than as a “group” is even more important than whether we refer to them as “students” or “youth.” As long as what we do for our teens is defined as “youth group,” our language communicates that what we do only happens as long as we are gathered as a group. I can choose to join the “youth group.” I don’t “go to youth group” when I am getting ice cream with my small group leader and talking about life. But when we refer to what we do as “student ministries,” it becomes less about our group and more about what we are doing, in big ways and small ways, to connect our students with God and with His community. You never “go to student ministries;” you are taking part in student ministries. It implies direction, action, purpose. And it’s open for interpretation as to who is doing the ministering. Our small group leaders lead the charge in our “student ministries,” connecting with and mentoring our adolescents in the faith. But our students also engage their friends and their world on mission, sharing their story and living out God’s kingdom. It is a ministry of and for adults and students together, seeking the same thing.

The words we use matter. And the language we choose to speak of things that matter shapes our perception and our understanding of those things. The message of inclusion and direction within the language of “student ministries,” for adolescents in the midst of massive and confusing changes in their lives, is too valuable to pass up.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! What language barriers have you wrestled with in ministry?


Learning to Love Junior High

Five-second montage of the past month: graduated college, got a job in youth ministry, started that job, and too busy to post anything substantive here.

I’ve taken a position as Discipleship Director for 5th-8th grade at Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. I was familiar with the church before, having grown up in the area, attending Kent State, and having a few personal connections there, so when the position opened up and was offered to me, there wasn’t too much question about it. I love the focus and desire of the staff and community among three simple goals:

Worship God. Love People. Reflect Christ.

I’ll be honest, when I was working through my degree and searching for jobs, exclusively junior high ministry was not really on my radar. Junior high ministry tends to be the tag-along to any youth ministry job, but in the case of Riverwood, I’m working exclusively with the junior high age group, and a little younger. It’s come with a few unexpected challenges.

I’m only just realizing that, at least in my own mindset, I’d always treated junior high as secondary to senior high ministry, as if junior high ministry is about babysitting until they’re old enough to make big decisions and actually do something with their faith. I guess in that respect, I’m guilty of the very thing we tend to decry the church for when it comes to youth ministry as a whole.

Unconscious assumptions like these I have toward junior high youth ministry are surfacing as I’m getting acclimated to the new position, and I’m grateful for it. The exclusively-junior high focus of the position gives me the chance to work out the skills and habits that I’ve been most lacking in: connecting with parents, empowering volunteers, and simplifying my teaching. Not to mention the fact that junior highers will appreciate my at-times ridiculous side with a bit more humor than senior highers have in the past.

I’m just about finished reading through Wayne Rice’s Junior High Ministry. At the suggestion of a mentor, I read it as a quick crash-course in junior high world to prep for the position. In it, he suggests that anyone working in junior high do their very best to recall in detail who they were in junior high. Thankfully, my junior high years came before the explosion of social media to document everything in photos and comments. But I’m working out a few posts about what I can recall from junior high, maybe with a few old pictures. Stay tuned!

Question: What do you remember most vividly about your experience in junior high?

“We’re Awkward, and That’s Ok”

Why Awkward Youth Group Games Are Important

A few weeks ago, as some friends and I were enjoying dinner together, the topic of our conversation somehow drifted into our memories of youth groups growing up, and from there into all those “awkward, youth group games” our youth pastors made us play. You know, games like “Honey, If You Love Me, Smile,” “Four On a Couch,” “The Phonebook Game” and “Fish Baseball.” (I’m not sure if those last two were played outside my own youth ministry experience, so if you’ve played them before, it’d be great to know).

As we sat there laughing at how silly we were and how awkward some of those situations
were growing up, I found myself wondering what it was we all gained from those memories and those games. Obviously, at the first mention of “youth group,” these games are the first things to come to mind and have the obvious benefit of providing compelling and hilarious stories for years to come. But what’s the point of playing Honey, If You Love Me, Smile? Does anyone even play those kinds of games anymore? And how do these games even matter when most kids today are perfect content to play each other in Call of Duty online or play Angry Birds alone on their iPhones?

I think some of these games were so formative and can find a place in youth ministry today because they embrace the awkwardness that is teenage life. Let’s face it – teenagers are awkward, no matter how cool they try to be. (And the further I get from my own teenage experience, the more I’m coming to realize that to be human is to be awkward, we just get better at hiding it as adults). But especially today, in a world where teenagers are being forced to grow up quicker and take on adult roles sooner, a youth ministry that provides space for laughter and for teenagers to remember that it’s ok to be weird can be refreshing and redemptive.

Providing space for us to embrace our awkwardness is important because it communicates that you can let your guard down when we’re together. This emphasis has to take place in the context of safe community and in a spirit of unity, not at the expense of anyone else. I’ve seen on numerous occasions where activities like this can turn into a few people’s awkward situations becoming everyone else’s joke fodder. When this happens, our communities turn instantly from a place of celebration and fun to a place of ridicule.

Teenagers already feel the awkward tension of their own adolescence; they don’t need our group or our ministry pointing that out to them and making a joke out of it. But when done in a spirit of community, where teens and volunteers can let their guard down, put down their masks and their attempts at being cool, we can all enjoy and celebrate the fact that we’re awkward, and that’s ok.

(re)create: those “creative” kids

Getting Practical: Those “Creative” Kids

I want to wrap up this series on thinking more creatively with student ministry by focusing on the more practical aspects of how to actually go about doing this. Because I doubt too many would say they are against being more creative in ministry. It’s just a matter of having the time or the energy to try new things, and dealing with those who would hold a tight line on “how things have always been.” So being creative in student ministry is great. But how do we do this?

The trouble with addressing the how question is that, in order to be creative with ministry in the sense that I’ve been addressing, only you as a student ministries pastor, volunteer or parent can answer that question. If I give an answer or a five step approach to creatively thinking about your ministry, it is no longer creative. So the following are some thoughts and principles I’ve seen work in ministry, as well as a few principles I have read along the way.

  1. Know your students. Whether or not you are trying to be “creative” with your ministry, this is the single most important dimension of your ministry to students. From everything to programming to counseling, if you don’t know your students, you will fail. When it comes to creatively approaching your ministry, you must know your students’ own talents, passions and desires if you want to expand the creative scope of your ministry. Otherwise, you will be imposing activities and approaches to ministry that have no context with where your students are
  2. Affirm and encourage the unique skills of your students in person, in programming and on stage. It’s one thing to know that a student loves photography; it’s another thing to express interest in their latest project, or to incorporate a picture they took into your talk or Powerpoint. If your student loves painting, or math, or writing, don’t just nod – ask them about it! Their passions and creative outlets are part of who they are and how God has created them. Affirm this whenever you can. If you have several students who love photography, or painting, or DJing, consider what kind of programming (small group, discipleship group, tech team, etc) you can develop to put these creative desires to use. Embracing rather than ignoring the creativity of your students communicates that you care about them as a whole person, not just for the sake of their soul’s eternal destination.
  3. Think multi-sensory. As mentioned in the first post of this series, we often only display two skill-sets in our worship: communication through spoken word and music. But people learn in a multitude of ways – through listening, or seeing, or experiencing or acting. Personally, I am a very visual and kinesthetic learner. I learn best when I can see something and do it. Embrace a perspective on teaching that acknowledges the variety of learners in your midst. Get your graphic design students to design a logo for your ministry or teaching series. Have a student paint a picture of a Bible story as you retell it. Also, consider the space that you do ministry in. What kind of atmosphere are you presenting for students as they come to your meeting times? For some of your more visual/artistic students, a dull meeting space can be a turn off. So embrace their artistic vision and get them on board to design a space that reflects the spiritual nature of your ministry.
  4. Help students develop a creative spiritual imagination. This goes a bit deeper than programming, to how we help our students think about God and their own spiritual lives. We have to help our students get over their own dualistic ways of thinking about their lives – spiritual life happens in church or when reading the Bible and praying, and secular life happens every other time. Part of this includes expanding the typical “read your Bible and pray” view of spiritual activities, and embracing some other spiritual disciplines in our own practice and teaching our students to do the same.

We have a very head-heavy evangelical faith. In my own experience, the spiritual practices encouraged in student ministry usually consists of daily “devotions” and prayer, both of which involve individual students and only within the confines of their own thought life. If we want students to embrace a faith that acts, a faith that moves, we can do so by helping students see the totality of their lives as a “spiritual act of worship,” to quote Romans 12.

In many ways, our programming in student ministry has programmed the spiritual lives of students – we teach to their heads and hearts, and so their faith stays within and is never acted upon. But God is not interested in our spirits alone – He wants the sum total of who we are, our physical bodies included. By embracing the creative gifts of our students, we can help them develop a view of their spirituality that involves the whole of who they are – body and soul.

Some additional resources to consider in this:
Sacred Space: A Hands on Guide to Creating Multisensory Worship Experiences for Youth Ministry by Dan Kimball
The Use of Arts in Urban Evangelism and Discipleship by Brian Bakke. A great article in Heart for the City, a larger volume on urban ministry
The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life by Tony Jones. Overview of spiritual disciples that could be incorporated into student ministry practices

Find Your Cause

Being an RA in the only remaining majority-freshmen, unit-style dorm at Cedarville is an interesting experience. Putting 16 guys in the same living space for a year yields plenty of pranks, lots of loud, late nights, and grandiose displays of masculine energy, whether its a truck-pull competition in the parking lot or a FIFA or Halo game between roommates.

One thing we talk a lot about as Lawlor RAs is the concept of becoming a godly man. What does it mean to be a man who pursues Christ wholeheartedly? And how do we create an community environment that fosters godly manhood rather than perpetual guyhood?

In his book “The Wild Man’s Journey,” Richard Rohr lays out 5 realities that a boy must come to accept before he can complete his initiation into manhood. The final reality, “Your life is not about you,” is the calling, the cause to which the newly initiated man finds his purpose. For some, this is a team or a flag. Others find this cause at the first sight of an ultrasound image or at the exchanging of rings and vows. Whatever the cause to be taken up, it is the final stage of male initiation. Without such a cause, perpetual guys will “almost always abuse or avoid [their role], both of which are a loss to the community.”

What men need is to be called up into something bigger than themselves, to be given a cause that compels courage and demands self-sacrifice. Today, our culture demands nothing of its men – except to be perpetual stay-at-home gamers living for the next LAN party, or perpetual partiers living for the next lay.

To this, Jesus replies: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Take up that which is your weakness, your shame and find the bigger glory in it. Follow me in giving everything to a cause greater than you.

May our response be like the writer of Hebrews, compelling us to find a cause greater than ourselves and the preservation of our tiny worlds, instead giving ourselves to the far greater cause of His Kingdom.

“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” 

Hebrews 13:13-14


I’ve been enjoying the plethora of time that vacation affords me by barreling my way through as many books as possible. I’m on my third as I write this.

I picked up Righteous by Lauren Sandler on a whim at my local Goodwill. (Sidenote: I’ve found that Goodwill can be a gold mine of awesome books for really cheap. But its my secret so don’t go raiding my Goodwill for all the books I will buy.) I think there’s always some wisdom in paying attention to what your harshest critics will say, because sometimes they see the blatant absurdities of what we do and have the guts to say what others will not. And considering that I’m planning on going into youth ministry, I picked it up.

The book covers Sandler’s travels through all the youth movements you’d expect – Christian hardcore festivals and their pro-life tents, Seattle and Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, Christian skate ministries, Focus on the Family, conservative colleges training future politicians, financial and prosperity seminars in Jesus’ name… everything you’d expect a reporter to check out and everything that has a tendency to be misunderstood.

Sandler’s chief criticisms of evangelical youth involves, not surprisingly, the conservative politics and a tendency to manipulate the difficult situations of youth. Her thoughts on the political nature of much of evangelicalism are nothing new, but her outsider’s opinion on the hostile nature of much of the pro-life movements within evangelicalism were telling. She writes of walking into a Rock for Life tent and seeing a t-shirt for sale which depicted the American flag where the stars had been replaced with a swastika and the words “What Happens When We Don’t Vote.” She says this: “My eyes wander back to the swastika on the T-shirt, and I realize suddenly: I’m what happens when they don’t vote. To these dissidents professing Christ’s love, I’m a Nazi in the abortion holocaust” (29).

In the midst of our passionate politics it can be easy to miss the humanity of the issue. Later she talks about sitting in a training session on how to reach girls going into abortion clinics. Included in the list of things to do is to pray for the unborn children you are about to save. “Make sure you’re ‘spiritually covered’ – ask someone to wake up that morning and just pray for you and the children you’re trying to save” (36). Thinking about that, I wondered where the mother’s came in, where the compassion was for them and the situations they found themselves in that brought them to the point of choosing abortion, and whether those protesting at clinics were also praying that these girls would understand the love of Christ.

Sandler describes how youth evangelism works as “sneaky deep”: “Once bonds are forged over a beloved band or football team, then the Evangelical ‘message’ can work its way into a relationship” (15). Whether its bringing kids in to see skateboarders wearing Jesus shirts, or opening up your building to hardcore acts that scream the name of Christ, the whole idea is to bring youth in by offering something cool, allowing them to get comfortable in their surroundings, and then show them how much their life sucks without Jesus. At one skate event, Sandler writes:

“No mention of God will be made for quite some time, and none in earnest for hours until after the ramps are packed up. The bands with the least overtly Christian vibe perform first. . . the bands that write music explicitly about Christ hit the stage long after everyone is comfortable. . . By the time the music becomes more Christ-centered, hearts are open, bodies are relaxed, the postmodern be-in is in full swing” (97).

She describes many other instances where something similar occurs. Whether its skating or political organizing or music, the way to do it is to package the gospel message in cool. Sandler sees all of this as really just manipulation, playing on the insecurities of troubled teens and showing them they can be part of something bigger, a place where they are accepted as they are and have others who understand their pain. It’s about acceptance and finding respite from troubled family lives. “Such is the tribal mentality of Christian youth,” she writes, “made perhaps most literal by the tattoos that are ubiquitous throughout the Disciple Generation nationwide” (54).

I come away from this questioning how authentic we are with how we package our message, whether we should be more upfront with our intentions, or whether we should keep it subtle and warm up to people, not only in our programs and events but in our relationships with people in every day life. If we as believers are inauthentic with our relationships, becoming friends with people only for the sake of proselytizing them, perhaps we need to reanalyze our view of people in God’s plan. Take, for example, Sandler’s sarcastic understanding of “relational evangelism,” which she sees as just manipulation made ok by seemingly good intentions.

“Throughout my travels, I have had this experience many dozens of times: what feels like an enlightened and entertaining conversation with a wonderful new friend takes a sudden and shocking dip into the realm of fanatic delusion, and then immediately jumps back to charming reality, leaving me internally bitch-slapped” (65).

We must understand that at the center of our messages and programs must be a genuine concern, love, and appreciation for the person as someone whom God loves and desires to be in a redeemed relationship with. Manipulation, marketing, and inauthenticity cannot be a part of our relationships with those who need Christ. It was in the moments of most sincerity and genuine concern for her that Sandler felt herself drawn to the Christian message most. Numbers, lifestyles, tattoos… all these are sin if they get in the way of our authentic concern and desire for others to come to know Christ, not as a means to a political or social end, but as the greatest good for each person.

There’s a thousand-plus more words I could write here about the book, but just go check it out for yourself. We need to learn from our critics just as we learn from those who are behind us.