In student ministry, it’s all too easy to methodize our ministries for entertainment or for the sake of numbers. If you’ve ever read anything regarding the history of youth ministry, you know that it is a [fairly] new concept. Youth ministry began in the 1930’s and 1940’s with the YoungLife and Youth For Christ movements, and Awana. These three ministries were holding large rallies for teenagers to encourage them and strengthen them in their faith – all with good intentions and gospel-centeredness.
Although these organizations were gospel-focused, the focus shifted in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the 1970’s, churches began to realize that they could organize a specific ministry for teenagers and children which resulted in the hiring of youth pastors (most of these were even former employees of YoungLife and Youth for Christ). In the 1980’s, MTV was the cultural influence. This generation became very media-driven which then began to infiltrate and influence the church. The result was an entertainment model of ministry for reaching students. No longer was the gospel inspiring youth ministries in their meetings, it was now inspired by the media-driven culture around them. Youth ministries found out that food and games and entertainment could draw students to their church. So to reach more people, this became the normal youth ministry gathering. This started what we now call the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” – the metaphorical description of the segregated youth ministry from the rest of the congregation. The result of this was students who could no longer tell the difference between the church and the world around them.
What Are We Working Toward?
This question seems open-ended, I know, but is a question we must all ask ourselves in any ministry context. It is so enticing to try to conjure up something that will look appealing to people so they will come to our church instead of the church down the road. Early on in my ministry, I read a few books by David Platt. One of those was his book, Follow Me. In his book, he wrote,
“We’ve replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church. We’ve taken the lifeblood out of Christianity and put Kool-Aid in its place so that it tastes better to the crowds, and the consequences are catastrophic.”
This is one author who had noticed the culture influencing the church much more than the gospel itself. This is what has come to fruition from the 1980’s youth ministry movement.
In this post, I want to propose a few answers to the overwhelming questions: What are we working toward?
1) We are working toward making disciples, not converts.
A disciple is different from a convert. You may ask the difference between the two – let’s take a look.
A convert is someone who has surrendered to Christ’s lordship over their life. They have been drawn by the Holy Spirit (John 6:44) to God and have chosen to accept God’s free gift of salvation. They have been “converted” or “regenerated” by the Holy Spirit, but that is the end. You could think of them as “dormant Christians.” Dormant is a word that is normally associated with volcanoes. When a volcano is dormant, it is defined as inactive or asleep. This accurately describes converts. It’s not as though they are not saved, but they are inactive. For being dormant does not deny a volcano its volcano-ness, it simply defines the volcano as having no activity.
In the Christian life, we are to always be growing and maturing in our faith. Dormant Christians do not do so – for they are not actively pursuing Jesus Christ and holiness. This is the result of inactivity – complacency. God has not saved us to be inactive!
Therefore, it brings us to disciples. If converts are simply inactive Christians, then disciples are those who are actively pursuing Jesus Christ and Christ-likeness. The Greek word for disciple actually implies a lifetime of learning. Disciples are constantly learning from their disicpler. They are constantly learning and consistently obeying their teacher.
The difference between converts and disciples is that of activity. The problem is that for too long, we’ve seen baptism as the finish line, rather than the starting line. The Christian life is a race and if we think baptism is the finish line, we will see many, many adult converts die as spiritual infants or as unbelievers. The job of any minister of the gospel is to introduce our people to Christ and to aid in influencing them in spiritual growth and holiness. Yet, the only way to do so is to first be a disciple who is growing spiritually and is striving for holiness. For you cannot make disciples if you are not first a disciple yourself.
2) We are working toward a cohesive ministry.
For the past few months, I’ve been reading a few books on Children’s ministry and how it fits under the large umbrella of student ministry in general. You see, I believe Children’s ministry is widely neglected in the ministry of the Church. We do not give enough credit to the younger generations in our churches. They are smarter than we make them out to be and can learn at even the earliest of ages. For this reason and many others, I believe it is absolutely vital to be teaching them from infancy the truths of the gospel.
I’ve been a parent for just over two years now and it is absolutely astonishing how much my son actually learns. My son takes mental notes of everything he sees me do and does his best to mimic them. He wants to do everything we do. Children learn from watching the way we act. You may be familiar with this saying:
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” or “You’re a product of your environment.”
I am a firm believer that children will imitate what their parents do and say. How many times has someone told you that you are just like one of your parents? Why is that? Well, it may be some genetics, but it’s also because we imitate our parents as children and it becomes natural to us as adults. Nonetheless, children will imitate what they learn from those who teach them. This means you parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, mentors to students, student ministers, and pastors!
You may be wondering what this has to do with ministry. If it’s true that children can learn from their infancy, then we should be teaching them from their infancy in the Church. It’s not enough to simply let our infants and toddlers play in the nursery and feed them goldfish while we could be teaching them the truths of the gospel. Why do you think youth are leaving the church in droves after they graduate high school? Part of it, I believe, is because we aren’t investing in them the truths of God’s Word while they’re young. In his book, Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do About It, Ken Ham did some research several years ago to find out why and when students are leaving the Church. Here’s what he found out:
“About 40 percent are leaving the Church during elementary and middle school years! Most people assumed that elementary and middle school is a fairly neutral environment where children toe the line and follow in the footsteps of their parent’s spirituality. Not so. I believe that over half of these kids were lost before we got them into high school!”
What Ham is communicating is that we are losing our children before they ever reach high school. As we know from youth ministry history, we thought if we could entertain them enough then we could use that entertainment to eventually share the gospel with them. But according to Ham’s research, they were already gone! This epidemic demands a response from the Church and the response must be a cohesive ministry.
What is a “cohesive” ministry?
In my opinion, a cohesive ministry is one that meshes together over the entire span of a student’s life. I am in the process of creating ours and it will be called “From Diaper to Diploma.” I am a firm believer that what we are working toward in our nursery and toddler ministry will come to fruition in our children’s ministry. And what we work toward in our children’s ministry will show itself in the student ministry. Then what our goals are in our student ministry will result in prepared, committed, and spiritually mature church members to continue the Kingdom of God for another generation.
3) We are working toward a new generation of leaders in the Church.
I know it’s a bit cliché to say, but this point holds as much validity as the others. Often times we hear people say,
“Our youth is the Church of tomorrow.”
Well on the surface, this is a true statement. According to generational conditions, our youth are the Church of tomorrow. However, we can never do good in neglecting the fact that they are also the Church right now. But I want to propose a different word to you:
“Our youth are the church leaders of tomorrow.”
If we ignore training, developing, and discipling the younger generations of our churches, we will end up, in on generation, with a church that possesses no leadership. Of course, there is an aspect of this that is bound to the home and the family. Paul is very clear in Ephesians 6 when he instructed fathers to bring up their children in the instruction of the Lord. Part of that is teaching them how to lead their own families and lead the church as men and women of God. However, there is also an aspect of this that comes from the Church. But what about those who do not have such a family? The church can step in and train those who are less fortunate and do not grow up in a spiritually saturated home.
Even so, the Church is still to raise up leaders within itself to take the reins to the next generation. Paul wrote to Timothy,
“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
2 Timothy 2:2, CSB
Ministry will continue if we will work toward training our younger generations to lead.
You know, it’s hard work investing in someone. Personally, I’ve done a less than satisfactory job of it and have even failed miserably in some areas. But failure doesn’t mean we should stop. We are commanded by God to invest in the next generation, whether we fail or not. For one success is much better than one thousand failures. It is worth all the energy and effort to see one whom you have invested in now serving God and His Church.
What are we working toward?
Making disciples, a cohesive ministry, which results in another generation of leaders for the Church.
 David Platt, Follow Me: A Call to Die. a Call to Live (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), 7.
Ken Ham, C Britt Beemer, and Todd A. Hillard, Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It (Green Forest, AR.: Master Books, 2009), 31.