The bus pulled up to the camp on a cool, Midwestern October evening. I had just arrived at my church’s student ministry fall retreat—the first I attended as a volunteer leader. I was looking forward to a fun weekend to bond with students.
The previous winter, a friend invited me to serve with him in a youth group not far from where my wife and I lived. We had just moved to the area and were looking for a place to serve. I wanted to do ministry (and to be really honest, I also needed an internship), so I jumped in.
Just to my left, a student who had become like family to my wife and me over the previous nine months stepped off the bus. She paused and looked around. And then, to no one in particular, she said, “This is where I became a Christian one year ago.”
The real question
I recently came across an article in a blog I follow that asks the question, “Is youth ministry hurting the church?” In it, the author ponders whether or not youth ministry has any biblical foundation at all. Far too many churches, he argues, do it poorly and actually harm the students’ faith altogether.
I can’t speak for every church and every student ministry situation, but I do know this: God is saving young people across our country and all over the world through the work of churches that care enough about the next generation to proclaim the good news of Jesus to them. It’s happening in our church services, at our retreats and conferences, on mission trips and at coffee shops. It’s happening on the mission field, in our church plants, and in rural and urban settings.
While there are certainly—undeniably—better and worse ways to do youth ministry, I am absolutely convinced our only two options aren’t “to do it or not do it.” The real question isn't whether or not we should make disciples of the next generation—it’s how we go about it.
To start with, we should continually explore how we can be effective in ministering to students and their families. We should want to focus more and more on gospel-dependent change rather than behavior modification. But for now, I’ll just say this: our movement of churches wants to multiply transformation among all people (including youth) because God commands us to do so and His love compels us to do so. Ministry to students isn’t optional, it’s obedient. And though the work is difficult, it’s rewarding. Though it’s messy, it is fully worth our time, energy and resources.
Hearing the phrase, “This is where I became a Christian one year ago,” led me to youth ministry as a vocation. Of course it did. I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school with no clear direction (if you had pressed me, I would’ve guessed that my future was in church planting or fantasy football). I was there because I thought that if I got trained, by the time I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I might at least be a little better at it.
The moment outside the bus was a chance to witness God’s rescuing power at work in a student’s life, and to see that student whisper to herself with such peaceful gratitude was a trampoline of joy that launched my soul heavenward.
At the same time I was studying the revivals in church history, I had a front row seat to revivals in the souls of the young people I had grown to love. I’ve now had the privilege to make disciples and then watch as they made disciples of their friends. I’ve baptized students, taken communion with students, served those in need with students and shared the gospel alongside students.
Last month, I went to a wedding of a former student. Between the worship music, the Christ-centered vows, the gospel-saturated message, I wondered if I had accidentally gone to a worship service instead of a wedding ceremony. Praise God. Praise God it was both! It’s all grace. It’s all a gift. If you haven’t experienced this personally, send an email to someone you know who ministers to young people and ask to hear their “stepping off the bus story.” We all have them. They’ll knock your socks off.
The most beautiful thing
When I think about that evening, that student, those words, I can’t help but think there are few things as thrilling and joy-filled as watching a young person see the beauty of Jesus for the first time. As I step into the role of student ministries director for the EFCA, my hope and my passion is that many beautiful feet in the church would bring the good news to young people far and wide that they might know the joy and love of Christ—the same One who motivated those feet to carry it to them in the first place.
I should confess—I don’t know whether or not this student intended for me to hear her words or even if she knows how God has used that moment in my life. Since that evening, there have been countless more moments and many more students God has used to help me know more of His goodness. I deserved none of them; it’s all a profound grace that leads me to profound gratitude.
All that to say, I can’t help but wonder how God might give you a taste of deep joy if you dive into the waters of youth ministry, unashamed to hold out a gospel that has the power to save. I pray you consider it. And for those of us already swimming, I pray we press on in the work—and invite your friends to do it with you, whether they need an internship or not. They might find that not only does student ministry still matter, but it also matters a whole lot to them.
Do you have a “stepping off the bus” story? Share it. We’d be inspired to hear it. Your stories will probably inspire more stories, and that’s multiplication!
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