“Youth are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today.”
In 1992, as a youth pastor, I heard this all the time and it led me to take the frontlines of modern church ministry seriously. But it also assumed and reinforced division within the church: student ministry was looked down upon as a lesser ministry relegated to the back corners of the church building where no one really wanted to visit.
Just because a student comes to church doesn’t mean they are ready to lead a ministry—it doesn’t even mean they know Jesus at all!
Disciplemaking was rare in a very program-driven environment, meant to satiate students and provide a place where parents could drop off their children for moral instruction. And the implied solution for this division in the Body was to stop calling youth “the church of tomorrow.”
Students who are in Christ are the church of today, but they are also the church of tomorrow. Student ministry should help students see both their now and their not-yet significance in the family of God.
A few years ago, however, a Lifeway study showed two-thirds of young adults who regularly attended church for at least a year as a teenager responded that they stopped attending church regularly between the ages of 18-22. Student ministry was declared a failure, and the Christian social media backlash was strong. The church of tomorrow wouldn’t be around tomorrow, and student ministry leaders were to blame.
Look closer and you’ll see a different picture. Students graduating out of youth groups were much more likely to retain their faith in God if:
- They had a true relationship with Christ.
- They came from a home where Jesus was talked about and followed, even imperfectly.
- They were engaged in the life of the church as a whole and not simply detached attenders.
In fact, of those surveyed in a Pew study, only 11% of young adults who claimed to have left the faith said they had a strong faith as a child—the other 89% claimed no real faith.
Looking at the biblical call of the church to follow Jesus together helps us see how we fulfill our roles in reaching all generations to love Jesus and grow to maturity of faith in Him. With this in mind, it’s clear that the Church needs to equip disciples and disciplemakers across the generations that make up the local church.
Set clear expectations
If we set a goal of what maturity in Christ looks like for all followers of Jesus, we can then see what we hope for students to become. This helps us avoid both the problems of unrealistically high expectations and cripplingly low expectations. Just because a student comes to church doesn’t mean they are ready to lead a ministry—it doesn’t even mean they know Jesus at all!
But the converse is also true. Just because they are young and inexperienced doesn’t mean they are incapable of making a huge impact on the rest of the church and the world.
Titus 2:2-8 (ESV) tells us:
“Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.”
Everyone in the church has a role to play in the life of the community, including young men and women. And while the emphasis of disciplemaking is from the more mature to the less mature, the whole church cannot function in a healthy manner without all members of it working together.
Each believer’s experiences are unique. God has placed each one of us in our local church community to help the Body of Christ to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Do you want to shape the next generation? Intentionally invest your time with them.
How the pastoral staff and lay leaders in the church see and respond to teenagers is also important. The mindset for many is to just get them through the adolescent years without too much bad behavior and then hope they become contributing members of the church body for the next 60-70 years. This magical switch is perhaps a reflection of the past views that stepping into adulthood and the responsibility it brings would cause young men and women to mature. So, the thinking goes, if we can keep them entertained or at least in the seats at church through high school, then we can hope for this change to happen upon graduation.
But what if we took a proactive approach to engaging students in a way that gave them both the power of participation and a safe place to fail with grace as they grow alongside other believers? It would be the whole church moving as one, living out the “one anothers” of Scripture and laying the groundwork for future generations in our local church setting.
Invite them into the process
Relationships are built through shared experiences both in ministering the Word to each other and completing the mission of the church with God’s help. Do you want to shape the next generation? Intentionally invest your time with them.
As a pastor and parent, I realized that sometimes those roles pushed me away from either my family or my ministry as I sought to lead them both well. I would need to travel an hour on the road and a few hours in a networking meeting. Or I would need to attend an event my children were participating in and miss out on a church activity.
So I intentionally incorporated my children into those ministry situations, taking one along with me as I served. Two hours of one-on-one travel time with a child is a great connection time. My kids saw me invest in campus ministries and the school system, they learned from other pastors, and they got to see the big picture of ministry in the Church. Sometimes, I would even have them step into the conversation and help set up or present a point during training.
[L]ook for ways to recognize and engage students as equal participants in God’s grace...
Likewise, when the church engages students in its regular rhythms and activities as participants with responsibilities, they learn that they have a place and can play an active part. Some students reproduce disciplemakers before they are 20 years old and can step into leadership easily when someone disciples and equips them for ministry.
Josh was a student who had faithfully been attending one of our youth groups. His parents had divorced and he was still affected by it, but as we met and opened the Word together, he seemed to be tracking along well. I gave Josh the opportunity to preach at a youth service, and he knocked it out of the park. He was convicting and funny, and I went away more challenged than I ever thought I must have challenged him.
He eventually went on to full-time ministry and wrote me to encourage me in the role I had in growing his faith. On my end, from the insights in Bible study to the sermon he delivered to watching him multiply the next generations of disciples, coming alongside this young man brought me inexpressible joy as I watched God at work.
When an older person takes time to share their gifting, talents and wisdom with a teenage student, it makes a world of difference. You can do this during your current ministry.
If you are a pastor, look for ways to recognize and engage students as equal participants in God’s grace as the seasoned saint who has spent decades following the Lord. If you are a layperson, invite a student to learn from you as you lead a ministry.
Start with parents, not student ministries
The church body is second to the parents’ primary responsibility to raise up the next generation. As we read in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This is a call to Israel to focus their whole heart, soul and strength into loving God, and to personalize their faith through conversations and obedience in community, beginning in the home. When parents are both encouraged and equipped to lead their homes well, the lives of students and the corporate life of the Church are all greatly enhanced.
When parents are being fed through worship services, Bible studies and peer disciplemaking friendships, their families have a more solid footing to train children who will launch into God-honoring lives. When student ministry becomes a silo unto itself, trying to take the place of the parents’ responsibilities to raise their children in the Lord, students will struggle to maintain their faith, especially transitioning from student ministry to church life.
I have worked with students for over 25 years, and I can probably tell you within 20 minutes of conversation with a student whether Jesus is loved and talked about at home or not. While there are exceptions, students who hear about and know that their parents love Jesus actively are the ones who have gone on to be fantastic disciplemakers in their adult lives as parents, volunteers and full-time ministry leaders. How the church supports, trains and calls parents to love Jesus and love their teenagers is critical.
Increase your joy
I was told early on that student ministry was always a drain on the church budget and it wouldn’t produce the income needed to balance its costs, so what does the church get from engaging students and student ministry? Besides passing along the faith to the next generation, one of the fundamental blessings of working together is mutual encouragement and joy.
Throughout His final words with His disciples before the crucifixion, Jesus expressed His promise of joy to those who heard and obeyed His commands, and the epistles are filled with the apostles celebrating the mutual joy that believers give. Paul carried this promise of mutual encouragement into his words to the Romans:
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.” Romans 1:11-12
Paul conveys this same benefit to his protege in 2 Timothy 1:4, and John “rejoiced greatly” to learn that the disciples he made were walking in the truth (2 John 3).
For students who are the beneficiaries of healthy cross-generational relationships in the church, deepening disciplemaking friendships result in mutual encouragement and true joy. There are many things that those who are more mature in faith can pass along to the next generation that will help them find joy in following Christ. But the converse is also true.
There is no more joy-filled seat than in the front row of the Almighty’s masterful hand in a student’s life...
As members of the body of Christ, students can help those farther along in their walk to grow as the Spirit uses each member to God’s glory. And the result is both mutual encouragement and real joy.
Kirk had a good personality, but sometimes he was less than confident in his abilities. We met with a few students once a week over breakfast to discuss the Bible, and his faith and understanding grew. He departed high school and got connected with a solid Bible teaching church.
When we caught up a couple of years later, I was excited to hear him grappling with deep biblical truths and putting them into practice in his own life. Not only did I leave our time with his thanks for my role in his life and relationship with God, I went away amazed that God had used me in Kirk’s story. I was honored to officiate his wedding and was not surprised that he became a young and capable elder in his new congregation. I continue to watch him and his family with great joy and mutual encouragement as he leads well at home and in the church.
There is no more joy-filled seat than in the front row of the Almighty’s masterful hand in a student’s life, knowing that you were invited by Him to share in a small way to make it happen. When the church of God steps in together, the beautiful symphony takes shape, featuring parents, pastors and other believers mutually sharing faith with the next generations.
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