I have been pastoring for many years, and I can still remember summer nights in Memphis, Tennessee, during the 1980s. Groups of students crammed into every available space on the red-brick back porch of the Volmers’ home. The smell of Corky’s BBQ or a homemade meal, and the sound of students hungry for the presence of God. During those summer Bible studies, our students had no hi-def screens or acoustic worship bands, but the goal was still the same: reach the hearts of the next generation with the life-changing truth of who God is.
Over the years, strategies for reaching students have changed dramatically. Anyone remember the days of leading worship with overhead projectors? Now we have IMAGS and music soundboards that no one would let me near! From marshmallow games of Chubby Bunny to Dodgeball events, the methods used to grow student ministry are constantly changing. Youth ministers are on the quest to find the “next big thing” to reach teenagers.
While strategies and approaches may have changed, one statistic remains staggeringly consistent over the last decades. Research shows that more than 80% of the people who give their hearts to Christ do so before the age of 18. You don’t need to be a behavioral expert on Millennials or Gen Z to see that our culture is changing. But the fact still remains, the spiritual soil of the next generation is just as fertile as it has ever been. I believe Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:37 still ring true for us today: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
Now the question remains, how do we adequately equip our laborers? The equipment we are placing in the hands of the workers of Idlewild Baptist Church can be summarized into the following three areas of focus:
Give them the Word
This may sound like an obvious statement, but using the Bible in your student ministry is not the same as having a student ministry driven by the Word of God. There is an assumption in student ministry that says to reach more people you must become more creative, more fun, and more relevant. While those things certainly have value, they should win the award for “Best Supporting Cast,” rather than playing the lead role.
As a church, it’s nearly impossible to compete with the entertainment industry or create experiences that rival current culture. Here’s the good news: Your students don’t expect you to. In fact, they’re hungry for something the culture cannot offer: the honest, unwavering Truth, communicated with love and delivered with practical application. Create an expectation among your students that the Word of God will be present in everything you do. “Give them the word” — not just during the message portion of your services, but in your counseling, your leader meetings, your fellowships, and your social media posts. Teach theology, tackle apologetics, and wrestle with difficult topics. Our students are hungry for this, and their culture is not shying away from difficult conversations. Elevating the Word of God to students should be anything but boring. Be creative and innovative, but your creativity and your content shouldn’t have to compete with one another. Let your content drive your creativity, not the other way around.
Go where they are
In order to grow any ministry, you must go where the people are. Jesus charged us in Luke 14:23 to “go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” The point of going is so they will come, not to your building, but to Jesus. Students are no exception. Engaging with a student in their world is far more effective than trying to attract them to your world with another program or event. To reach students, you must go where the students are. If your student ministry doesn’t have a strategy to reach high school and middle school campuses, it has already put a lid on its growth potential. One of the greatest mission fields in North America is the public-school system. In today’s heightened awareness about safety in schools, and skepticism of outsiders, beginning a campus ministry can be challenging. Gone are the days of simply walking into a cafeteria and talking church with students. Launching a campus ministry can be a challenging and slow process, but this is a compelling cause, because we have a compelling God.
In your approach, keep in mind that teachers and administrators are under-resourced, outnumbered, and desperate for support. The keys to unlocking campus ministry may not be through the students, but through the staff. Make your entire church available as a resource to schools. Offer your church campus for school functions and banquets, provide meals for sports teams, enlist volunteers for school functions and mentorship programs. The point is: Become a servant and a partner to local schools, and you’ll find yourself with more opportunities to love people to Jesus than you’ll know what to do with.
Get on the same page
Your student ministry is part of the larger local ministry of your church. The students you are reaching are connected to families your church is trying to reach. The families your church is reaching have students who should be actively engaged in your student ministry. The organism of the church functions at its highest capacity when the heartbeat is the same. I don’t know very much about medicine, but I’ve been told that if the synapses of your heart aren’t all firing on the same circuit, you’re going to have a problem. One or more of the heart muscles can’t survive because they are communicating different messages about when to fire and make the heart pump. You’ll end up in heart failure. The same is true for our churches. If the ministries that make up a church aren’t on the same page, we’ll end up in critical condition as a church.
Senior pastors: You’ll notice something very interesting, the longer you pastor. As my experience and gray hairs grow, there are two facts I cannot get away from: I am getting older, and my students are not. Each year at Idlewild, we reach a new generation of students, but the message God has given us remains the same. I want my student pastors and staff to buy in and believe with this message, which means I have a responsibility to invest in them both personally and professionally. Students at our church are my students. They should see me at camp and dodgeball and block party as both their senior pastor and a part of their community. I have the privilege of working with some of the best student pastors of this generation. They extend open invitations for me to be a part of their ministry, without the pressure of creating content or needing to cast vision for them. They know my heart and, because of the investment we have made in each other, there is built-in trust. Senior pastors, take the time to cultivate relationships with your student ministry and empower your staff to do the work God has called them to do, under the oversight you provide. Communicate clearly, often, and in love. Celebrate their wins, and be a faithful advocate when mistakes are made. Invite your student team into the bigger conversations about your church. You will learn from them as you lead them.
Student pastors: Your senior pastor or lead pastor wants you to know his heartbeat and vision for this church. It is your opportunity to seek clarity in areas that are unclear. You are all working toward the same goal, but you have a responsibility to communicate this unified message that resounds with your church’s heartbeat. Your agreement with this message will communicate to students that they are not a ministry inthe church, but a ministry of the church. They are a vital part of the body of Christ. They should know this and believe it. Champion the convictions and events of your pastor and your entire church. Silo ministry can never be effective ministry. If possible, your students should be seen at senior adult lunches, children’s ministry programs, and church-wide events.
We say often around Idlewild that we are not reaching the generation of tomorrow, we are reaching the generation of today. As we seek to grow student ministries, may our anthem resound from Psalm 78:4, that “we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power, and the wonders He has done!” Join me as we reach today’s church!
Published May 3, 2018