Less traditional student ministry might mean more disciples

If student pastors were to stop doing about two-thirds of what they are doing, we might begin producing more disciples. Why? Because if they stop doing some things, then they will have time to do other things that offer even more promise. I have much confidence in the student pastors as leaders, but the time has come for their workweeks to change.

Though their numbers are not great, 20-something disciples do exist. Those walking in faith, loving the church, and making a difference in the world tend to share three characteristics:

  1. They were reared by parents who adored Jesus, loved the church, and were on mission to see Christ’s Kingdom come on earth.
  2. They grew up with a rich web of relationships with the full congregation and were on mission with church members of all ages.
  3. They were in a Bible-drenched student group led by a student pastor and volunteers who carried the aroma of Jesus.

We now know the three arenas of ministry most likely to lead to lifetime disciples. Therefore, I propose the following workweek for the student pastor:

  1. Approximately 15 hours a week accelerating the spiritual impact of the homes where his teenagers live.
  2. Approximately 15 hours a week immersing every teenager in the full life and ministry of the congregation.
  3. Approximately 15 hours a week leading what we traditionally have considered student ministry.

Of course, ministry is never that neat and tidy timewise. But these broad hourly divisions point to a different role for the student pastor. The 15-hour blocks include administrative planning, public leadership, and one-on-one ministry. Each of these three arenas of ministry merits attention.


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Accelerating the spiritual impact of parents

Spiritually lethargic parents suck the power from church student ministry. Spiritually alive parents intensify that ministry.

After having spoken to parents in more than 400 churches, I have found many to have these “discipleship” goals for their church’s student ministry:

  1. Make church so fun that my Precious will come without giving me hassle at home.
  2. Motivate sweet Precious to succeed and make a good living.
  3. Keep my Precious from doing the big sins that would embarrass me.

One or two parent seminars a year will not fix that. But 15 hours a week can give the student pastor time to partner with the other pastors to deepen parents’ walk with Jesus, call out and teach them how to lead spiritually at home, and equip them to parent biblically.

Immersing every teenager in the full life and ministry of the congregation

Teenagers who only connect with peers and a few youth leaders generally will not walk in faith in adulthood. Those who spend their teenage years with multiple heart connections with believers of all ages probably will. This is not rocket science.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s people usually appear in intergenerational relationships. “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:17–18 ESV).

I believe it is time for fresh thinking about ways churches can use buildings, budgets and calendars to create rich webs of relationships around every child, teenager and adult. One result might be young adults who love Christ’s church and who consider the full congregation to be family.

A student ministry book that’s sparking conversation is Chap Clark’s Adoptive Youth Ministry. He makes a strong case for teenagers and members of the congregation adopting each other. Clark believes teenagers have much to give as well as receive, so he calls for mutual adoption. I like his imagery.

Paul is the only New Testament writer to use the term adoption (huiothesia). God the Father adopts believers into His eternal family, and He intends for these “siblings” to live in warm unity and shared mission.

Consider asking your teenagers, “Not counting parents and youth workers, how many adults in our church know your name, know interesting things about you, and often show interest in your life?” A youth pastor who gives 15 hours a week to multiplying adoptions could dramatically change the answers.

Most students who leave high school with little love for the Bride eventually will wander away from the Groom.

Leading traditional youth ministry

I believe grade-schoolers need to search Scripture to find how to imitate Jesus on a recess playground. I believe senior adults need to search the Word to discover new ways to be on mission after retirement. In other words, I believe in balanced, age-specific ministry.

I celebrate the student pastor who presents text-driven talks that are relevant to the specific issues of the teenage years. I celebrate open-group Bible study that presents foundational concepts to all teenagers. I celebrate intensive discipleship for those specific teenagers who have made a clear decision to follow Jesus (see disciple6.com). I celebrate groups of teenagers who move out to evangelize and make disciples locally and globally.

And yes, I celebrate teenagers’ doing things that are fun. (I also celebrate children on inflatables and senior adults going to Branson.) I think warm friendships and laughter are part of what King Jesus was promising in John 10:10.

Ministry built around thirds still provides time for student worship, open-group Bible study, intensive discipleship, evangelistic and caring outreach, and fellowship. And time is also well-spent on a few special youth events, but only those that are strategic to creating lifetime disciples.

Change

Of course, a youth pastor who tries to make all these changes on his own will soon be selling shoes at Sears. Well-meaning senior pastors, church leaders, parents and even teenagers think they are “paying” the youth pastor to provide programming for teenagers. Period. Without preparation, youth pastors could face parents who are going ballistic when they think they are losing their babysitting service. And the teenagers may only see this as trading the Xboxes for “old people who smell weird.”

Slow and careful change seems much wiser. Movement in new directions might follow this flow:

  1. The senior pastor, student pastor and core church leaders pour over Scripture, pray deeply, and draft a direction for the future.
  2. That group invites leadership staff, core parents, core volunteers, core teenagers and core congregation members to speak into, adjust and then affirm the direction.
  3. Leaders present the plan to the full church and youth group.
  4. The church creates ongoing ways to celebrate, affirm and tangibly reward the student pastor as he takes the lead in new directions.

The great majority of our student pastors love King Jesus supremely, embrace their calling fully, and do their work tirelessly. But because they do those things the church expects them to do, the great majority of church teenagers are not becoming world-changing disciples as adults. Everyone knows the definition of insanity. I say it’s time for change.

Richard Ross

Richard Ross

Professor of Student Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Ross serves as Professor of Student Ministry in the Jack D. Terry School of Church and Family Ministries. He is married to LaJuana and they are parents of Clayton.
Twitter: @richardaross
Website: RichardARoss.com
Richard Ross