“Youth pastors! All they do is eat cheese pizza and go to Six Flags!” My mentor in ministry used to make visits to a local high school, and invariably, this was the comment made by the football coach as they met in the hall. I suppose most adults consider student ministry to be just that—somewhere to send your teenagers for entertainment and “no sex” preaching (usually, parents decide their child needs abstinence training after they catch a daughter making out in her bedroom; why they think it’s a good idea to let them “watch movies” unattended in her room is another issue altogether).
Student ministry is flashing lights, loud music and games that usually involve obscure canned meats or swallowing someone’s pre-used toothpaste, stuff that Shane Claiborne calls “chicken poop for the teenage soul.” Those things attract teenagers, an important aspect of student ministry. Gather youth pastors together and without exception one will ask, “So…What are you running?” Many youth pastors, as they announce their average weekly attendance, look to the left, the universal symbol for, “I’m telling a lie.” Who can blame them? Student ministry is numbers-driven. If you don’t have a large number of students attending, you must be doing something wrong; either that, or the kids don’t think you’re cool. (Listen closely, and you’ll hear the simultaneous thud of youth pastors fainting all over America.) If your ministry isn’t growing, the parents will start clamoring for a new youth pastor, someone more entertaining, someone who doesn’t turn their kids into “radicals,” someone who will teach the kids to be “good boys” and “good girls.”
This is the expectation for many student ministries—train the students to be “good,” to avoid sin at all costs. Don’t have sex. Don’t use bad language. For God’s sake, don’t get tattoos. Many train their students to do nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to rock the boat. Many train them to do nothing, and frankly, they become quite good at it. They learn it from their parents, and unfortunately, they learn it from their youth pastors.
The attitude must change. Youth pastors must become bold and encourage their students to become those “peculiar people” that Peter wrote about, even when their parents don’t understand the change in their habits, attitudes and desires. Parents must accept the idea that their children’s idea of what constitutes “Christian living” may be different than their own.
The goal of ministry is to promote pure living, but to instill a heart for social justice as well. Our own ministry recently spent 13 weeks learning who Jesus ministered to, what He did for them, and how they should respond. Students met and fed the homeless, worshipped with them and wept over a little girl with no shoes. They spent two months exploring human trafficking and raised funds to give to International Justice Mission. They have heard stories of individuals who led passionate lives for Christ, from Joan of Arc to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This summer, they will travel to downtown Atlanta to minister to the homeless there. Students who didn’t even know Christ one year ago now cannot wait to finish high school, when we will give them opportunity to spend extended time overseas on mission.
It’s a hard concept for some. We once did an event called “Destination Unknown,” taking the kids to an undisclosed location for a night of fun. Some members of our group were conspicuously absent. One mom reported to me that she didn’t send her children because, “We thought you would take them to some homeless shelter or something.” She went on to add, “By the way, when are you taking the kids to Six Flags? That’s the kind of thing they really like to do.”
I’ve grown to believe that student ministry is about much more than just numbers and telling teenagers to “just say no” to temptation. It’s an opportunity to place oneself at the forefront of a great rebellion, a war on the idea that Christianity is just about your inactions. “Follow” is a verb. Something must be done in order to meet the requirements of the command. If I follow Christ and my students follow with me, then they no longer have to settle for being a shadow of the greater culture. Instead, they can lead the Church into the next generation, making her what God intended her to be—a cool shade for the world to rest beneath. If they can accomplish this, the world will look at the Church and know: This is where I go when I need help …when I’m hurting …when I’m homeless … when I’m addicted …when I’m far from home …when I’m hungry … when I’m sick …when I’m ready to give up … But if I choose not to go to the church, there’s no worry, for I know that she will come to me.