We Need a Revolution in Student Ministry: Here’s Why
Sometimes I wonder what I am doing teaching in the field of student ministry, writing books on the topic, speaking at student leadership conferences, and so on. I wonder why I keep doing youth DiscipeNows and camps. I’m a professor after all, an academic whose primary field is the area of applied theology focusing on evangelism. I’ve written textbooks for seminaries and I love the world of the academy as much as I enjoy taking students out witnessing. I’m 54 years old for crying out loud, so why not just be a professor and teach on the history of awakenings and evangelism?
Because of my passion for an awakened church, one bold in the gospel, strong in conviction for the Word, and engaged with the culture in an effective way, that’s why. Because I have so many students I’ve taught serving faithfully in student ministries across American I want to encourage. And because I believe in this generation. This is why I believe we need a revolution in student ministry. I believe it is on its way. Let me offer two reasons.
First, we need a revolution because God’s unchanging Word offers the best we can give to youth today. We have nothing better to offer students, their families, and to an entire Millennial generation than the great Story of God. And, youth are responding. Across America you can see scores and scores of churches thriving, with great numbers of young adults, where the preaching of the Word of God receives priority. Yes, we must teach the Bible in a way that communicates well to this generation the timeless truths of God, but communicate it we must. Kenda Dean is correct when she says in Almost Christian that for too long the church has communicated well, but communicated the wrong thing to students: a moralistic, student-centered message that helps no one.
Study the great awakenings. They preached the Word and saw God move. They emphasized the gospel and were blessed with the hand of God. And who was at the center of so many of these movements of revival? Young people.
We need a revolution in youth ministry to lift up the life-changing power of the gospel and the teaching of the Word. Just this past weekend I spoke via google hangout to scores of youth leaders across the state of Georgia, challenging from my book As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. The response I have received from attendees was overwhelmingly positive, because they realize a change must happen in student ministry, a shift from moralistic therapeutic deism to gospel-centered theism.
But there is a second reason we need a revolution. We still have a lot of “experts” who treat teens like elementary aged children, who disrespect what the Scripture affirms (like the foolishness of preaching), and who discourage youth pastors from preaching the Word of God to students. I know too many student pastors who have been at their churches for years and have faithfully taught the Word with great effect to ignore the issue of dumbing down student ministry.
One of my former students sent me an article in published in youth ministry magazine. It seems there are still a lot of student ministry “experts” and resources which seriously think the way to impact teens is by means other than the faithful, effective teaching of the Word of God.
Let me offer some reasons we must teach the Bible consistently and faithfully to students, and thus see a revolution that shifts from a personality or event driven ministry to a missional, gospel-focused approach flowing out of the Word.
First,God has given us the Word of God to teach us; why would we denigrate the preaching of the Word to students? Do we think we are more clever than God is wise? I would say at this point that preaching is not the only way to teach the Bible. In As You Go I warn against lowest common denominator approaches that merely teach crowds of students things they can all grasp. We need small groups, mentoring opportunities, and other forms of teaching the Bible. But let’s not act as though we can do anything better for students than teach them the message of the Word and the mission of God.
Second, we disrespect teens when we assume they don’t want or need preaching. As I have noted in other places, we read many instances of teens in Scripture (Joseph, Miriam, David, Jeremiah, Josiah, Daniel, Mary, many of the disciples, etc) who demonstrated both maturity and a desire to grow in the knowledge of God. The same can be said about history. I would need to apologize to middle schoolers I know who fight human trafficking, high schoolers driven by the gospel to reach their lost friends, and the scores of students who listen to podcasts of men of God rather than playing video games all day. Young people are learning trigonometry in high school, they can learn theology in church. Yes, it must be taught in a way that helps them to apply it to life. But we are not equipping our students to impact their world for Christ when we act as though they cannot sit through a service centered on the teaching of the Word.
Third, we help parents to be the primary disciple-makers of their own children when we faithfully model the teaching of the Word. Deuteronomy 6 challenges parents to teach their children diligently. As a parent who has raised two teens, I see the value of student ministry to help, especially in the case of students whose parents are not believers, but we can help parents teach the Word as we show both a respect for its truth and model the teaching of the Bible.
Fourth, we need, we desperately need the hand of God on our ministries. It is ridiculously hard to be a teenager who lives for Jesus today. Culture has become post- or even anti-Christian. I would submit that students more than ever need to know what the gospel is and how it impacts everyday life, not just church life. Students need to be equipped well and steeped in the Scriptures. This is why ministries like Student Leadership University, Student Life, and others thrive today, because they effectively equip this generation through the power of God and the authority of Scripture.
Fifth, the approach to student ministry focused on relationships is needed. This is a fatherless generation, and one of the reasons I think God has blessed my speaking ministry to youth is simply because I am a dad (and because I teach the Word!). But the greatest relationship a student needs is with God, not a hipster youth guy or a kicking youth band. At Southeastern we seek to teach PASTORS who work with youth and families, not youth guys who direct activities. There is a reason Christian Smith and Kenda Dean wrote Soul Searching and Almost Christian respectively, why David Kinnamon wrote You Lost Me, and why churches across America that are blowing up with huge crowds of young adults are the churches preaching the Word expositionally. Maybe this is why Wayne Rice, a cofounder of Youth Specialties, recently said what youth ministry has done well over the past generation is to create a toy store in the church.
There is a growing movement of those who seek a gospel-driven, missional, biblically grounded student ministry. The stakes are way too high to affirm stereotypical youth ministry, given the Millennial generation is the largest and most unreached in history. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is the character of God who has given us the gospel, and a Word that he, not we, declared is to be preached for the glory of God and the sake of the gospel.
Jonathan Edwards said the First Great Awakening was mostly a youth movement. He also wrote that a part of the reason the revival began in his town of Northampton was the youth listened to their pastor when he challenged them to be more serious about their faith. The revival broke out when he preached — yes, he preached — a series on justification by faith. I find warrant in Edwards’ approach, what about you?