Last fall I had participated in the ReInventing Youth Ministry Conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The conference focused on what has become apparent to many who work with students: student ministry in the Western Church needs an intervention that leads to a reinvention.
Something remarkable happened at the conference. One of the founders of the largest student ministry organizations in my lifetime, Wayne Rice of Youth Specialties, made a confession: “We got what we wanted. We turned youth ministry into the toy department of the church. Churches now hire professionals to lead youth ministry. We got relevance but we created a generation of teenagers who are a mile wide and are an inch deep.”
Why do so many student finish high school and drop out (actually many drop out when they get their drivers license)? Because we created a youth ministry culture that taught them to do so. We have not equipped students to be adults, who understand the gospel and live as missionaries. We created a “cool” subculture where they could be treated like the center of the universe and given a bunch of stuff, but not enough Jesus, Scripture, or character.
To his credit, Wayne Rice then argued for three changes:
1. Turn student ministry back over to the church. Youth pastors should be seeking to work themselves out of a job as they help youth become incorporated into the life of the church.
2. We can no longer ignore the role of the parents.
3. We can offer them nothing better than the gospel
I agree with Wayne Rice. We need a new paradigm. I want to offer my thoughts on what that paradigm should emphasize:
First, God. We need a new vision of God, His vastness, His power, His love and justice. If your students have a lot better grasp on who you are as the student pastor than who God is as the mighty creator of the universe who sustains the world by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:4), you have a problem. We need student pastors, national and parachurch leaders who are better at theology than at new ideas. Wayne noted that the founders of Young Life said it is a sin to make Christianity boring. Agreed. And it is a greater sin to make Christianity silly, which is what has happened. We must exalt a great God and give focus to His Word.
Second, the gospel. We have taken the good news of the gospel and taken it off the headlines of our ministries where it should be and put it in the advice column part of our youth groups. We pull the gospel out to give advice rather than showing students how Jesus is the hero of all of Scripture, all of life, all the parts of their lives, and how the gospel makes sense of everything. Let me remind you that in newspapers, advice columns are next to the cartoons. And that is what we do with the gospel, putting it next to an ipod giveaway instead of showcasing it always as the main event, the one thing that is constantly newsworthy in your ministry. We need a radical, Christocentric transformation, understanding the gospel is for salvation AND sanctification, for saved and unsaved alike. This Jesus cares for the broken and rebukes the self-righteous: He is the children-loving, disciple-calling, leper-healing, Pharisee-rebuking, humble child born and ultimately the reigning Lord Jesus.
Third, the goal. I believe the goal of student ministry is to develop disciples who see the world as missionaries and live as missionaries. The goal is not to have a great event and have a lot of buzz. This means we do less student ministry that is based on the lowest common denominator. It means you score success in long-term disciples. It means to help students to grow and to develop their own plan for gospel impact now. If you help individual students to develop a plan for gospel advance in the context of your local church you, will in fact help them to hear from God and be confident in their planning and thus to be better prepared about college, career, and all of life.
Fourth, the gathering. Connect to the whole church, across generations. The generation of teens today is not only the largest, it is also the most fatherless. We must connect students to the larger church and not function as a parachurch ministry within a church building. Students need older believers in their lives. We need a Titus 2 revolution where older men teach younger guys and older women teach younger ladies.
Over the past generation culture has reinvented the teenager into a formidable marketing segment of our population. Perhaps student ministry can help to shape them into something much more significant.