This past weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to Virginia to hang out with and teaching about 450 middle school students and a ton of amazing staff and volunteer adult leaders. On Saturday, I spent some time speaking to and learning from the adult leader who were there with their students. I spent a good chunk of this time outlining 6 tips about student ministries that I’ve learned. Most of them I learned either by accident or by God beating me over my stubborn head until I got it, but all of them have been important as God has developed my passion, philosophy, and vision for student ministries.
Anyway, I was asked by one of the leaders in attendance to write them down so, here they are! I won’t go into a lot of detail in this post but feel free to check out my book “Sow What?” at http://www.slimbooks.com/sowwhat for a more in-depth discussion and examples of each one!
1). Raise the Bar. My student ministries philosophy revolves a lot around 1 Timothy 4:12, which says: Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. I love this verse and I think it’s so important for anyone working in student ministries.
I really believe that through this verse, Paul is telling us that young people in Bible times (much like today) tended to be looked down on by older people who think they knew more and that is now okay. It it a major pet peeve of mine when students today are subconsciously or literally told to wait until they’re older or ‘more mature’ before they can take their life, decisions, and faith seriously. What a waste. According to what I read in Scripture, God frequently used young people for His purposes. David, Samuel, Esther, Timothy, and Jesus’ Disciples to name a few.
Because of this, I believe student ministries need to call students to a high standard of ownership in their faith. Things like teaching, worship, and community shouldn’t ever be dumbed down for the sake of students. Instead, we should teach up and call students to a high standard of life by taking them seriously, like I believe God does. It’s my belief that not only is this how God desires us to lead students, but also appropriately empowers students to learn from a young age what it means to personally own their faith, independently from their parents, pastors, or friends. Whether owning their faith means admitting they aren’t sure they even believe in God or they’re on fire for Him, I think students need to learn what it means to take their faith seriously and through that, discover the truth of God that will last far beyond middle school, high school, and college.
2). Fun. Not the band, although they’re really good. I believe fun needs to be a significant priority in student ministries, not just a throw-away element. Students need to know it’s okay to fully love Jesus…and still be/have fun. Gross games, hilarious videos, and youth pastors who don’t take themselves too seriously are key factors for students. Fun is so important. It knocks down walls, creates laughter, and is needed for students whose lives often time consist of things like the isolation of school, tons of homework, bullies, broken homes, dysfunctional families, shallow friendships, and even worse. Plus, in my opinion, by unashamedly having fun with students, we earn the right to go deep and teach up to them in teaching, worship, and community.
3). Just Say “Hi.” It’s amazing how a seemingly small, insignificant thing can lead to something incredibly important. As an introvert, it’s really difficult for me to walk up to someone I don’t know and start a conversation, but in the context of student ministries, I’ve learned that it is vital. A new and/or shy student who walks into a ministry without any friends there is already doing something incredibly brave and terrifying. And as uncomfortable as it might be for me to walk up and say hi, the impact it might have is well worth the initial awkwardness. By simply saying “hi” to a student, it could mean the difference between them coming back the following week, getting involved in a small group, signing up for a retreat, beginning a relationship with Jesus, and becoming a student pastor of a ministry with 1,000 students 10 years later. Obviously that’s not going to happen with every student you say hi to, but at the very least, you will have made a student feel welcomed and appreciated for a few minutes.
4). Create a Culture. In this context, I define culture as: “A very inclusive inside joke.” Culture is something that you feel apart of something the second you walk into the room. Culture in a student ministries context could be anything from a yearly trip, a silly chant, sports, music, merchandise, a game, or anything else that makes a student feel accepted, included, and a part of something with everyone else right away. When it comes to creating a culture, I think every student ministry will do this differently. A lot of it depends on the area, church, and student interests but I also think a lot of this depends on the personality of the student ministry leader. I once heard that Biblical teaching is “truth through personality.” In the same way, I’d say that creating a culture is a student leader creating elements of their ministry that are fun, random, and consistent, all connected to their individual personality, skills, and passions, so that any student who walks in will automatically feel a part of something.
5). High Expectations for Volunteers. I used to always lead volunteer leaders with a twinge of guilt in the back of my mind. Since they were giving up their time to serve students in a ministry, which I was paid to lead, I never wanted to make them feel pressured or taken advantage of. So, I would always ask things of them with a “but if you can’t, no big deal” kind of attitude. However, I found that this lead to many leaders not being fully engaged in their role as a volunteer. Instead, through some wise counsel and God patiently teaching me, I decided to unapologetically raise the expectations for volunteers. Things like consistency, connecting with students outside of ministry nights, and required weekly, quarterly, and yearly attendance for leader meetings/trainings became part of the deal.
What this did was not only clarify what was expected for a volunteer in student ministries, it also A). Showed how seriously we took our influence in the lives of students, B). Affirmed how important their role was as a calling to intentionally invest in and build relationships with students, and C). Make it much easier to have candid conversations with volunteers who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow through on the commitment.
6). Discipleship. This is a word that used a lot today in the context of ministry and for as many people that take discipleship seriously, there are as many opinions about what it is and how to best do it. The simplest way I think about discipleship in a student ministries context is how Bo Boshers talks about it, which is: “The Be-With Factor.” In a small group of 8-12 students, there might be one (possibly two) student who is ready for discipleship, which is simply an intentional, consistent, and one-on-one time with their small group leader to walk through life with them and help them grow. I think discipleship will look different for each church/ministry/leader/student but is key for any student ministry to take students who are ready to a deeper place of growth and relationship with Jesus through the relational influence of the leaders of the ministry.
These are just things I’ve learned in my experience but I am no expert. I would love to hear from any of you on things you also find to be keys for students ministries and/or any comments on anything I wrote as well.
Thanks for reading!