The million dollar question seems to be something like, “How do we keep students committed to Jesus into adulthood?” This is one of the main questions I have been wrestling with during my tenure as a youth pastor. And depending on the season, I end up somewhere swinging between it all being on Jesus or all being on me. It is true that Jesus is the author and perfector of our faith and as shepherds we are called by god to build up or students in their faith. At the end of the day, it is both. I plant, you water, I plant, you water, and God causes there to be growth and life. This is a mysterious partnership.
In this mysterious partnership there are always better techniques and practices to improve our planting and watering. And if we take a step back, I think we will see that the solution to fertile and usable soil has been there all along. We try all these ways to make the gospel more appealing, to make the good news seem better. In the process we distance ourselves from the church. The church is old, bureaucratic, institutionalized, boring, irrelevant. While that might win us points in the short term, by making us seem hip, flexible, and relevant. This attitude decimates the chances of our students becoming adult followers of christ.
If our time and energy is spent winning students to us or to our student ministry at the expense of the church we really are cutting off the nose to spite the face. The church, warts and all, is where adult followers of Christ gather for worship, discipleship, fellowship, and ministry. Student ministry is temporary, college ministry is temporary, big church has to be the place we help students land if we want them to continue to know and love Jesus into adult hood.
One of the greatest quotes I have ever heard was from a random volunteer on a Mexico mission trip. he said, “Student ministry is a short term mission in a long term life.” If you think about it, this is a revolutionary concept. Just like short-term missions, we are only around for a short period of time. And to be effective and a true blessings, we partner with those people who have been there and will continue to be there in the long term. We don’t show up as the end all to ministry, because we know we are there for only a short amount of time. Instead we work our butts off in that short amount of time and are a blessing to the community we are partnering with. Then we graciously hand them off to their long-term community.
Student ministry as short-term missions: Student ministry must be seen as short-term mission, and the landing place for long-term mission is the church. For students to not get caught in the middle, we must do a better job of loving the church; highlighting how the church has been caring for the students, helping students fit into adult worship, encouraging students to serve, and finding meaningful ways to transition students into the adult life of the church. This allows there to be meaningful, long-term faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. The following are some principles we have implemented at our church to help our students stay connected to the church.
First, it is not ok for student ministry leaders, myself included, to be among the biggest critics of the church. Our jobs and budgets are there because the church loves students. They shell out tons of money to provide a person and place for students to figure out who Jesus is in an environment that works for their development. And if we take their money and recourses and then discredit the very people who provide for us and our students, everyone loses. We must communicate with our students that the old, out of touch, adult church, loves them so much. That is why we have a youth worker, a youth room, a budget. that is how our mission trips get paid for. Tis happens because students are valued by the church. (But sometimes the adult leaders don’t know the best way to show it)
Second, everything we do points to getting our students connected to “big church.” Big church is the formal term for the adult worship gathering. with all the great things that happen at youth group and sunday student worship, we do a huge disservice if we don’t help our students engage in adult worship. There is a discipline to singing worship for 30 minutes, or for standing and sitting liturgy, for long sermons that don’t speak directly to students’ lives. This is where the adult church gathers and is ministered to and worships together, and it is a learned habit. If this habit is instilled in junior high, it will be much easier for them to continue to worship with adults when they are one, as opposed to only worshiping with their peers in services designed only for them.
Another way we are helping our students connect is by making service to the church part of our ministry diet. Our students regularly serve in children’s ministry. Their service is not just because we need warm bodies there, it is because we are continually reminding them of how we develop spiritually, that is we are always pouring our lives into someone younger and always finding people older than us to pour their lives into us. Children’s ministry is a great place to remind our students that the church loves them and cares for them. It did when they were little, it does now, and it will as they get older.
The last thing we do to connect our students to our adult worshiping community, is by having a transition service for the senior class in our student ministry. We spend an entire service in the spring for our seniors to share their testimonies. In these testimonies we work with them to reflect on how they have been loved for and cared for by our church. Then we commission them by having the church lay hands on them and pray for them and welcome them into the adult community. It is an amazing service, and i am always reminded at god’s goodness and faithfulness. Our church is reminded as well of God’s goodness and faithfulness through their love and support of student ministry.
Like you, I still have students who don’t do any of the things I encourage them to do, show up here and there, and end up being amazing followers of Christ, and I still have students who are totally committed to everything we do as a student ministry and choose to walk away from Christ. But one of the transitions we have seen is that when students return from college, their gathering place is in big church, not outside the youth room. Big church can not only be for adults, we must help our students develop that habit. I said at the beginning, the spiritual development of students is a mysterious balance between us planning and watering, and God causing growth. I do think we make god’s job harder if we cut the legs out from the church instead of helping students find their rightful place in the larger body of Christ.
We give our students an amazing gift when we give them the tools and the habits to develop their faith into adulthood within the adult worshiping community. It is then they have the best chance for loving Jesus for the long haul.