I’ve heard it said that somewhere between 70-80% of churched students will not return to church post-graduation from the youth group. I’ve heard some refute that number. I’m not sure what is ultimately true, but I do know what has been my experience during my thirteen years in student ministry. Too many students affiliated with my ministry throughout the years are no longer walking in a community of faith. I say “no longer walking with Jesus,” but I believe their present situation more than likely shows that to not have ever been the case to begin with. Therein lies the rub, I think. Surprisingly, many of those students were what many would consider solid, core members.
As I thought through this troubling reality towards the end of last year, God began to fill my thoughts with one prevailing question.
Am I helping students simply grow in their knowledge about God, or am I actually helping them to grow in their knowledge of God?
I am a teacher. I love teaching. I love teaching deeply. I love challenging students. But I must also admit that I enjoy playing the role of guru. One of my greatest goals even from the very beginning of my ministry has been to offer excellent, deep, challenging, solid teaching. For a long time I believed that solid teaching alone would turn the tides of student apostasy, at least in my own student ministry. But I am becoming more and more aware that good teaching alone is only part of the answer. Now, please do not hear me in any way diminishing teaching. Students need solid, doctrinally-sound, Christ-exalting, gospel-proclaiming teaching. But even the best teaching can result in students only increasing in their knowledge about God.
I have also become painfully aware of my desire to play the part of the Holy Spirit. I do this when my desire becomes to mold students rather than lead them into the presence of the only One who can actually do that. I can become quite prideful in thinking that somehow my ability in teaching and discipling alone can result in supernatural change within students’ lives. Only God transforms the hearts of sinful people through his Spirit’s work within us. And that is a slow work that will only be accomplished as individuals become intentional about personal pursuit of God and knowing him.
In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes, “If the steady, longtime faithful devotees to our ministries are not transformed in the substance of their lives to the full range of Christlikeness, they are being failed by what we are teaching them” (p. 18). Perhaps that is a standard more of us in student ministry should adopt.
So, if teaching alone, even solid teaching, is not enough, then what is missing? In order for students to shift from knowing about God to actually knowing God, they must spend intentional time with God. Now, of course that is an enormous ‘duh’ statement! Of course students must spend time with God in order to know him. But I guess the question becomes, is that reflected in our student ministry philosophy and practice? For me, even though that is something that I have always known, it has not always been something to which I have given prominence in the shape of my ministry. But how do we go about that, anyway?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to incorporate spiritual disciplines into student ministry. In his book on Youth Ministry entitled, Raising the Bar, Alvin Reid states, “Students today must be shown both what to believe and why. They must not only hear the truth; they must experience it” (p. 104). Spiritual disciplines are tools that we can use to cause us to be still, helping us to experience God. We must help students find time to slow down, be still, and abide in Christ and his Word. If this never happens, how can we ever truly expect students to actually take ownership of their own faith?
If we neglect this vital aspect of our students’ spiritual formation, we stand the chance of students continuing to develop a dependency on our teaching and ministry, rather than on Jesus and his Word.
So, how do we do this? As student ministry leaders we often pride ourselves on being creative. I’m challenging us all to direct our creativity in this area! After all, finding creative ways to help usher our students into the presence of God is so much more important than expending all of our creativity on stage sets and intro videos.
One way that I would offer is to throw away the canned small group material! Instead, challenge students to posture themselves before God and in his Word using various spiritual disciplines during the week. Then use small group time to reflect together on what the Lord taught them and how the Spirit led them during that time. Another idea that I am planning for the fall this year is a spiritual retreat. We will offer our students some guides to spend meaningful time (1-2 hour blocks) with the Lord. Instead of teaching, we will all come back together to share and discuss. In just retooling some of our programming already in place, we believe that this will result in greater balance between solid teaching and self-pursuit of spiritual formation.
How about you? Perhaps you are way ahead of me and have already been utilizing spiritual disciplines in your student ministry setting. Perhaps you have found other ways to help your students grow in their knowledge of God. Feel free to share them below! Also, reading this article might spark some creativity in your mind or heart. Feel free to share new ideas below, as well.
One final note, though.
We can’t expect to push and challenge our students in this direction unless this type of God pursuit is not also an important aspect of our own spiritual formation.
Pursuit in the knowledge of God must begin with us. As with everything else, student ministry leaders simply cannot ask students to do something that they are not willing to first do themselves. As student leaders develop a deep thirst for abiding in Christ—as they “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8a)—only then will students be willing to follow their challenge to seek the Lord in such a manner.
Header image provided by Ryan McGuire through Gratisography.com.